There was a time when Mindfulness was considered to be the 'out-there' stuff of wacky woo-woo land. Meditation too was seen as the exclusive domain of yogi’s, hippies and Buddhist monks.
But attitudes have changed - and are changing.
We now live in an age when high technology and need for speed seems to be taking over our lives; an uncertain economy and a volatile job market creates anxieties; and escalating levels of expectation put us under even more pressure.
Against this backdrop, we can find ourselves all too often in a state of "too much to do; not enough time; and massive questioning of our life's direction and purpose."
At the heart of it all, lies a yearning for peace of mind, mental clarity and a feeling of ease and contentment.
And the simple realisation that our effectiveness, our growth and our long term happiness, depend on it.
Are we going mad?
For most professionals nowadays, working life is full of challenges. Some of us are successful, satisfied and doing well. But too many of us are unhappy. We’re stressed out and quite possibly confused. We may appear to be effective, but we’re churning up inside.
Turning away from work – or whatever else we think is the problem - is not usually an option, even if we wanted it that way. So we grit our teeth and get on with it.
That’s not great for us, it’s not great for our work and it’s not great for our relationships.
We often forget that our mind contains limitless resources and possibilities—for creativity, kindness, compassion, insight, and wisdom. It has a huge capacity for energy and drive – and so do we.
However, our minds also work against us: they can produce incessant and annoying, limiting chatter, and rule our lives like an untamed beast. And the constant images and noises that we see and hear around us in our external world, simply serve to amplify their effect.
Eventually we can find ourselves trapped and battling with a tangled web of ruminative thoughts, repetitive, destructive emotions, and impulsive and addictive behaviours.
Sometimes we would like to just shut our mind down – switch off and go home! Sadly, my friend, this is one thing we cannot do.
However, we can learn how to put our mind to good use instead.
So what exactly is Mindfulness?
For thousands of years, Eastern traditions have believed it possible to change one's mental powers and emotional patterns by regularly experiencing meditative states.
Through Mindfulness, we can train our minds to function in a more efficient and beneficial way. By training us to focus moment by moment on where we are and what we’re doing, mindfulness can help us to consciously choose what we will pay attention to and so how we will behave.
It jolts us out of the repetitive cycle of negative thinking that traps us and prevents us from being more creative, loving and constructive in our thinking.
This won’t just give us some relief from stress; it can improve our health and actually change, even transform, how we live and work.
The Science Bit
Every week seems to bring the emergence of new scientific, medical and social research supporting an increasingly compelling case for Mindfulness as a beneficial practice for us all.
Take, for example, the field of neuroplasticity, which rests on the premise that the functioning and structure of the brain changes in response to experience. Studies have shown that the way we intentionally shape our internal focus of attention in mindfulness practice, induces a particular state of brain activation during the practice: an ability to be present to the sensory flow of here-and-now.
- If you practise focusing attention on your breath or a mantra, the brain will restructure itself to make concentration easier.
- If you practise calm acceptance during meditation, you will develop a brain that is more resilient to stress.
- If you meditate while cultivating feelings of love and compassion, your brain will develop in such a way that you spontaneously feel more connected to others.
- With repetition, mindfulness can develop from being a habit or practice, into an enduring personality trait.
How to Practise Mindfulness
There is a wide array of practices to choose from. You can experiment with them one at a time, or you can try combining them. The important thing is to create a practice that works for you, and do it regularly. Here are five of my favourites:
- Meditation. This is the traditional and best known, although not always the easiest, tool you can use to access mindfulness. It does become easier with practice, but it need not be difficult for beginners. Simply find a comfortable place, free of distractions, and quiet your mind. The key with meditation is not to judge, and to simply notice what comes up … it’s all good!
- Breathe. Very simple and can be done as you go about your daily activities. Focus on your breathing, drawing in from your belly rather than from your chest. Try to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Focusing on the sound and rhythm of your breath, especially when you’re upset, can have a calming effect and help you stay grounded in the present moment. A convenient method when you feel you don’t have time to meditate!
- Listening to Music. Music therapy has become a popular form of complementary medicine, and can also make a great mindfulness exercise. Play soothing new-age music, classical music, or another type of slow-tempo music to feel calming effects, and really focus on the sound and vibration of each note, the feelings that the music brings up within you, and other sensations that are happening "right now" as you listen. If other thoughts creep into your head, just notice, and gently bring your attention back to the current moment and the music you are hearing.
- Communing with Nature. Walking, sitting or lying down in nature brings a huge array of sensory experiences that help you to connect with the here and now, as well as appreciate, and connect with, the wonders and mystery of our planet - of which we are part. Listen to the sounds of nature, open your eyes to what you see, touch and feel the other species around you, excite your sense of smell, and taste the earth’s produce. Become aware of how your body responds, and notice how your sense of wellness gradually shifts.
(More on Mindful Walking at our upcoming retreat)
- Observing Your Thoughts. Sometimes it can be extremely difficult to stop focusing on the rapid stream of thoughts running through our minds and the idea of meditation and can actually cause more stress! Rather than working against the voice in your head, or getting involved in your thoughts, you can sit back and "observe" your thoughts. As you observe them, you might find your mind quieting, and the thoughts becoming less stressful. (If not, try journalling as a way of processing all those thoughts so you can decrease their intensity and try again.)