“Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves – slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future; live the actual moment. Only this moment is life.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
What were you thinking about as you took your shower today? Were you fully aware of the shower experience? Or were you thinking about the day ahead or remembering the events of yesterday?
What were you thinking about when you ate your breakfast? Did you notice the smells, textures, flavours and sensation of eating?
LET’S START AT THE VERY BEGINNING, WHAT IS MINDFULNESS?
At its essence, mindfulness is being in the moment. The concept of being present just where you are and just as you are. It’s a liberating idea. A daily experience of being present and engaged in what we’re doing from moment to moment. Naturally, this is an effortless to experience when we’re doing stuff we love and value. However, it’s a difficult task for most of us. Often we are distracted, dwelling in the past or the future or mixed up in reactivity.
It’s particularly difficult when we’re under pressure at work, stressed, when we’re having difficulties in our relationships or when we’re in rush hour traffic. These are the times our thoughts tend to drift off into worry, getting preoccupied with judgements and reactions, daydreaming and just generally stuck. In these moments, we have difficulty being present in the moment. Then mindfulness becomes an exercise. It’s a skill. It’s a skill we need to practice so we can get better in using it.
Very simply, being mindful is to consciously engage in whatever we’re doing in the present moment. Take notice when our thoughts inevitably roam somewhere else and bring those thoughts back to the present. The key skill to master here is recognising that our thoughts have drifted and bringing those thoughts back to the present moment over and over (and over) again. With practice, we start to rewire our thoughts and become ninja fast at recognising wandering thoughts and bringing them back to the present moment. It can be challenging to cultivate mindfulness in life but it’s enormously beneficial.
As we begin to develop an awareness our thoughts, one of the aspects we practice in mindfulness is a position of being kind to ourselves, being empathetic to ourselves and being self-compassionate. It’s a vital element of mindfulness. For example, when we’re sampling mindfulness and making an effort to be in the moment, we may think “Why is my mind wandering all over the place? I can’t stop it!” and suddenly we‘re feeling angry with ourselves, critical and the problem has become worse. It’s important we accept our humanity and bring our thoughts back to the present in a non-reactive, non-critical, self-compassionate way.
WHY MINDFULNESS MATTERS?
Thousands of peer-reviewed scientific papers have begun to unpack the multitude of benefits of mindfulness. Proven benefits of mindfulness include enhanced creativity, deeper sense of value in life, stress reduction, easing anxiety, combatting depression and anxiety, improved eating habits, reducing chronic pain, stronger immune system, memory improvement, faster reaction times and increase in mental and physical stamina. In this article, I’ve chosen to expand the three benefits I find most interesting:
We can train our brains to become more positive. Yes, really.Davidson and Lutz (2008) conducting neurological scans of meditating monks who had engaged in prolonged compassionate meditation for a minimum of 10,000 hours. They found that the left prefrontal cortex, which is associated with positivity, was activated much, MUCH more than in the general population. Davidson and Lutz concluded that the monk’s entire neurology had been rewired, proving that compassionate mindfulness is a skill you can practice.Don’t have a spare 10,000 hours? Fear not! Harvard neuroscientists Hölzel et al (2011) found that a group practicing mindfulness for an average of 27 minutes a day reported significant improvements in their wellbeing, particularly ‘acting with awareness’ and ‘non-judging’. Most importantly, MRI scans before and after the study revealed changes in brain structure. The authors believe that these physiological changes may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.
Enhance our relationshipsAs we nurture a kinder opinion to ourselves and develop self-compassion, it’s more likely that we’ll feel more accepting and tolerant of others we meet. So the attitude of self-compassion we develop flows into more compassion, empathy and altruistic approach to others in our lives. So mindfulness starts with a positive change for us but then naturally starts to have a positive effect on the people around us.Barnes et al. (2007) found that people who practice mindfulness are more likely to have higher relationship satisfaction and a greater capacity to respond constructively to relationship stress (both romantic and platonic relationships). The study also found that people who practice mindfulness had better quality discussions.
Reducing StressMindfulness is instrumental in reducing stress (Astin et al., 1997). The chief way that mindfulness supports us to overcome stress is allowing us to become aware of our underlying thoughts and attitudes to the situation. By becoming aware, we equip ourselves with the opportunity to naturally change our responses to the situation. Becoming aware of how we respond to stress is a vital tool.
In being mindful we become aware we are stressed. We are aware of physical changes (tense muscles, hunched posture) and we can proactively relax the body.
We are mindful of our responses and have greater insight into the choices we have when faced with this stressor.
If we practice mindful meditation, we give our body and mind time and space to simply be present. Allowing us to replenish our internal resources.
We have the opportunity to consider different perspectives. For example, the train is late but it then presents the option to grab a cup of tea. Or there’s a huge queue in the shop but it gives the opportunity to text a friend. We could even use these opportunities to practice mindfulness meditation!