I’ve a bit of an issue with the name I've just typed above, I will come back to that point in a moment or two.
My journey with mindfulness happened by accident really. If anyone had asked me 5 years ago what it entailed I’d have likely cocked my head to one side, pondered for a moment or two and then tried to come up with a tactful way of saying that I hadn’t got a clue.
When I say I found it by accident, what I really mean is that I discovered some of the practices, without realising that there was an umbrella term under which they fell.
I speak freely about having experienced crippling anxiety which led me to the verge of a breakdown some years ago. Alongside the panic attacks, relentless catastrophising (the mental exploration of the worst possible outcomes of a situation) and agoraphobia (fear of leaving home) I was physically ill, suffering with intermittent inner ear problems that left me constantly feeling dizzy and nauseous. On the recommendation of a friend I’d had some Reflexology which helped alleviate the physical symptoms but, when delivered as a standalone treatment, was limited in the effect it had on my (often paralysing) anxiety levels.
It was at the funeral of a friend who very sadly took her own life that I was introduced to a way of viewing anxiety that made it easier for me to comprehend. My late friend’s father (a well-respected university professor), when delivering her eulogy, likened anxiety to a computer virus, that little by little stealthily infects every memory stored in the brain, honing in on one tiny thing within that memory worry about or to catastrophise. In all my studying since I’ve not found a more accurate description, as his definition epitomised precisely how anxiety felt to me. Anxiety is characterised by feelings of nervousness, worry or unease about situations where the outcome is not (or was not) certain, or can be misconstrued by others. It is these feelings that change or skew our view of current or past situations, leaving feelings of guilt, dread and fear in their wake. Anxiety also distorts the future, causing worry and catastrophising thoughts about events that have not yet occurred (and likely never will). Part of the problem here is that we spend much of our time on auto-pilot (how many times do you find yourself completing a task without thinking about what you’re actually doing) - anxiety is no different and quickly becomes kind of an auto-pilot habit.
The best way perhaps for me to demonstrate this is to ask you now to visualise a milk bottle that has been knocked over, what image or thoughts come into your head?
My anxious brain would have jumped immediately in to full panic mode (let’s call this scenario 1), racing like a lemming hurling itself over the edge of the cliff, imagining me or a loved one slipping over on the spilt milk and breaking a leg, or one of my children seriously cutting themselves on the smashed bottle. Secondary to the physical injuries that would be inflicted, my mind could well have imagined that the whole floor would be ruined and would require removal and replacement causing massive cost and upheaval. I would also be panicking, guilt-ridden about how the fallen bottle was my fault, how I should not have left it out, or near the edge of the table. An incessant and all-consuming storm of circling thoughts.
My non anxious brain now can hold on to the thought that the milk bottle has gone over without jumping into full panic mode (scenario 2). It then rationally assesses the situation, before asking qualifying questions to establish what the actual situation is – was the bottle empty or full? Was it plastic or glass? Was the lid on? Has any milk actually been spilt? before then making a measured decision about what to do next.
In this instance let us say that the milk bottle was plastic, had its lid on and was empty, so my scenario 1 reaction would have been totally disproportionate to the situation. It would have elevated my stress hormone (cortisol) levels, probably giving me palpitations, tight muscles, and an upset stomach, all completely unnecessarily. Now imagine that happening 30-40 (sometimes more) times a day, over seemingly inconsequential things, and you get an idea of how it feels to live with anxiety.
The difference between the two reactions given here is clear. Which group would you fit in to? Perhaps you fall somewhere between the two?
The difference between my reaction then and now is due simply to my mindfulness practices. They are what enable me to slow and clear my mind and to pause before reacting. And it’s that, right there that causes me to take issue with the name Mindfulness - as for me it’s not about my mind being full, rather it’s about clearing my mind, discharging unwanted, negative thoughts, and allowing myself space to consider and be rational.
Mindfulness practice is not one specific thing or activity, but as I have already said in my opinion it is an umbrella term under which a plethora of wide-ranging techniques and activities sit. As a Mindfulness Teacher I deliver a range of these techniques in my groups, giving an overview from the very simple to the more complex, so that whether you have 2 minutes or 2 hours available there is something that can be drawn upon to help quiet and still the mind. Clinical research has proven that Mindfulness brings such benefits as;
Reduced pain levels
Better work/life balance
Reduced anxiety levels
Mindfulness can be described as the practice of living in the moment, letting go of the past, and not striving for the future. This is a very simplistic description (and is easier said than done!), but when you consider it, the majority of stress comes from either thinking about what’s happened in the past or what might happen in the future. Obviously it’s neither practical nor possible to let go entirely of thoughts relating to the past or future, but there are practices that can be adopted to help put events in to a rational context, and that extend the periods of time we can seek respite from them, enabling us to enjoyably live in the moment. I’ve noted a few below that you might like to try.
Breathing. Yes, I know we all do it (!) but when was the last time you sat quietly, closed your eyes, and really focused on the feeling of breathing in and out? Where do you feel the cool air? Is it in the back of your nose? Perhaps it is in the back of your throat? How does taking deep breaths make you feel? Just a few deep breaths can help calm the mind, increase oxygen levels in the blood, release tension and aid in the elimination of toxins.
Walking. Again, it is something we do all the time, but when was the last time you slowed down, walked gently and really looked at what was around you? In the words of Thich Nhat Hahn “Walk as if you are kissing the earth with your feet”. We are so programmed to walk quickly, using walking simply as a method to get from one place to the next, but how about changing that a little. Allow yourself a bit more time and just look at what is around you. Think about how the grass or pavement feels under your feet, the sensations you feel, the feel of the breeze on your face or the smell of wet grass. I love nothing more than walking or sitting in a woodland – I am fascinated by the bark of trees and the way it varies from one species to another, some even vary according to the age of the tree.
Being grateful. We have so much, but we also take so much for granted. As Bing Crosby sang ‘When I’m worried and cannot sleep I count my blessings instead of sheep’. Taking a notebook and jotting down mini lists such as;
What made me feel calm today
What do I have to be grateful for?
What were the loveliest things that happened today?
These can really make a difference to your mindset, and can focus the mind on the good things, not just the bad. These do not need to be big things – One of my lovely things for yesterday for example was that I saw a red squirrel in the wild, equally it could equally have been that my post-run shower was made better by the fact that my towel had been on the radiator and was lovely and warm. When we start to acknowledge and appreciate the small things that make us happy, our view of life shifts.
4. Meditation. Often when I say this I am met with rolling eyes, as clients imagine they will have to sit cross legged in yoga pants omming and ahhing! Whilst there is a place for that kind of mediation, it is not what I teach to anyone attending my classes. I believe meditation needs to be easy to integrate into daily life, otherwise it becomes another stressor – and frankly that is what we are all trying to get away from. One of my favourite meditations is the 3-minute Breathing Space – when I say 3 minutes, I mean just 3 minutes – which means it’s very portable – You truly can do it just about anywhere. It initially focuses the thoughts on breathing, bringing the attention in to the body, before then expanding the awareness back out. It quickly and effectively clears the mind and feels like a real ‘reset’. A simple Google search will bring up many examples for you to follow, I’d recommend using one containing words that resonate with you.
5. Find your Flow State. The flow state is one where we are truly absorbed in that which we are doing. There are no other thoughts or actions present. It is linked to mindfulness by its similarity in the intention of immersing oneself fully in an activity, filling the senses and revelling in that feeling without agenda, unwanted feelings or thoughts or distractions. When in the flow state, one often feels blissfully unaware, though does not generally recognise this sensation and pleasant feeling until later reflection. When in a flow state time passes quickly, and all outside distractions are forgotten. Common flow state activities might include such things as running, listening to music, painting and sculpture.
I’ll leave you there with just a couple of final quotations.
“Worry pretends to be necessary but serves no useful purpose” – Eckhart Tolle
An old Cherokee told his grandson;
My Son, there is a battle
Between two wolves inside us all
One is evil
It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow,
Regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity,
Guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies,
False pride, superiority and ego
The other is good.
It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity,
Humility, kindness, benevolence,
Generosity, empathy and truth.
The grandson thought for a moment
Then he asked his grandfather,
Which wolf wins?
The old Cherokee simply replied……
The one you feed