An introduction to mindfulness
Mindfulness has been defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn as: ‘the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally’ (2013). For quite a lot of the time, most of us function in automatic pilot and we are constantly ‘doing’ rather than simply ‘being’. When we are in these busy modes our thoughts can run away with us and we tend to ruminate or think forward to what might be. Mindfulness involves living in the moment and intentionally paying attention in different ways, using all our senses, to what is happening right now. There are eight key attitudes of mindfulness that I will discuss more fully in a later blog post; these attitudes help us to focus with intention and include: non-judging; patience; non-striving; acceptance; letting go; self-compassion and kindness; trust and applying a beginner’s mind.
You can be mindful when you are completing an everyday routine task, such as making a cup of tea, brushing your teeth or eating an apple. Focus on all of your senses when doing this task: sight, sound, taste, smell, touch. Take your time over this rather than allowing it to be an automatic task. If you do this with full attention it will help you to focus on the present moment rather than thinking about what has just happened or what is going to happen. If thoughts enter your mind when completing the task, that’s OK, it’s normal; just imagine them floating away on clouds or like leaves falling from a tree and then return to your task.
A significant element of mindfulness is concerned with meditation. Mindfulness meditation is a type of meditation in which you focus on being intensely aware of what you're sensing and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgment. I practice a mindful meditation each day and I have no idea how or why it works but it definitely induces a sense of calm in me and allays any stress or anxiety I might be experiencing. I used to think that it was something I would have to do sitting on the floor with legs crossed but I don’t and I’m unable to do that. I either sit upright on a chair or lie down. It’s more powerful when I do it regularly and it can be a short meditation for a few minutes, such as focusing on my breath, or a longer meditation for 20-30 minutes that might involve a whole body scan. I also used to think that meditation was something difficult that involved making my mind go blank and not having any thoughts but it isn’t and it’s normal to drift off into other thoughts when meditating; learning how to be non-judgemental and patient when this happens, then just letting thoughts go and re-focusing, is all part of the process.
Being mindful when connecting with nature is highly beneficial. Try using all your senses in turn, for example:
Noticing what is around you, with wonder, as if it were the first time you had seen what you are looking at, is amazing. Looking at the sky, trees, leaves, the pavement, buildings, grass and so on and only focusing on these things.
Then focus on what you feel; the air or wind on your face, the fabric of your clothes against your skin, your feet lifting off the ground and then making contact with the earth again.
Use touch to experience nature by making contact with the bark of a tree, feeling a leaf on a tree or brushing your hand over a patch of grass.
After this, listen to any sounds around you; try to do this with a beginner’s mind as if you were hearing these sounds for the first time and don’t know what it is that is causing the sound.
Then, finally, applying your sense of smell in your surroundings and noticing what this sense brings to you and what you experience in this moment.
As for all mindfulness activities, finding joy in the smallest day to day experiences can be highly beneficial and this is what mindful walks in nature can gift us.
Simple breath practices can be done at any time of the day when you feel you need to re-focus or begin to feel stressed; perhaps your thoughts are running away with you or you experience an emotional response to something. Try doing the following short breath practice:
· Lower your gaze or close your eyes.
· Breathe in and breathe out at a pace that feels comfortable for you.
· Notice where you feel the breath coming in through your nostrils, down the back of your throat, into your lungs.
· Feel your breath leaving your lungs on its reverse journey through your throat and nostrils. Feel your chest and belly moving as you breathe.
· If your mind wanders, that's OK, it's normal.....thank your thoughts gently and come back to your breath.
· Continue for at least one minute.
The benefits of mindfulness
Spending a lot of time trying to solve problems, ruminating on the past and what has already happened, daydreaming, or getting stuck in negative self-talk or thinking random or negative thoughts can really sap us of energy. These things can lead us to feel stressed and anxious. Applying mindfulness in our lives for one or more parts of the day can help us to focus on and engage with the world around us and take us away from negative thinking. Research tells us that being mindful can lead to reduced:
High blood pressure (hypertension)
Some early research also suggests that mindful meditation can help people with asthma and fibromyalgia which is a disorder involving musculoskeletal pain accompanied by fatigue, sleep, memory and mood issues.
Being mindful is an act of self-compassion and self-care.
Meditation research has also found that practicing regularly can:
Increase focus and attention
Decrease job burnout
So why not have a go? Try the breath practice outlined above for one or two minutes or go for a mindful walk and feel the benefit.