Making sense of mindfulness
You’ve probably heard of mindfulness. We seem to hear it everywhere these days, from politicians to head teachers, from your local GP to Ruby Wax. Everyone’s jumping on the band wagon. So what’s the buzz all about?
Mindfulness is not new. It has been around for thousands of years in eastern traditions but has taken off in the West relatively recently. Over the past 30 years or so, many studies have shown that practicing mindfulness regularly can increase your sense of well-being, your tolerance to pain and your ability to concentrate. It can also help with depression, anxiety and feelings of stress.
Mindfulness is simply about paying attention to what’s happening right now, without judging it. You don’t have to be sitting on top of a mountain wearing an orange toga to practice. It’s not mystical or about reaching a spiritual Nirvana but simply being aware of your life as it’s unfolding, moment by moment. You can do it anywhere, at any time.
Here’s a question for you. When was the last time you noticed your little toe? Probably when you stubbed it on a door, right? We notice our bodies when we are in pain. How about noticing them when we are at peace?
How do we do it?
There are two parts to mindfulness practice. There's the formal or sitting mediation for 10-20 minutes a day. This is where we exercise our mindfulness muscle - a bit like going to the gym but for the mind. We purposefully sit and pay attention to something, often the breath. When our mind wanders, which it will, we simply bring it back to the breath. If the mind wanders one thousand times, we bring it back one thousand times. There's no judgement about doing it right or wrong. We just notice what there is.
The second part is an informal practice of becoming more aware as we go about our day. It might be noticing how it feels to get up out of a chair or to walk to the fridge. Every moment is an opportunity to practice. Practicing a formal mediation on a daily basis will make this easier.
How often do you go to pick up your tea or coffee only to realise you've already finished it? We can go through a lot of our life on auto-pilot, not really noticing it at all. Try this next time you have your favourite hot drink: really notice the weight and feel of the cup as you lift it towards your lips. Notice the temperature and the steam rising on your nose. What can you smell? Stay with these sensations for a few seconds before taking a sip. When you do, notice how your mouth changes shape as you take in a little liquid. Notice the sensation as it passes down your throat. Don't worry if your mind starts to wander. Just try if for a few seconds at a time. We take for granted these everyday occurrences. But if you think about it, most of our day is made up of seemingly inconsequential actions. If we are not aware of them we are in danger of letting the majority of our life slip by unnoticed.
My top five mindfulness tips:
1. Keep it simple. There's no need for the 'correct' posture or scented candles and chimes. Just follow your breath. Try it now.
2. Be kind to yourself. If your mind wanders you're not doing it wrong. Your mind is designed to wander. Noticing that your mind is elsewhere is a moment of awareness.
3. Use all of your senses. What do you see, smell, taste, hear, feel?
4. Slow down. Try doing everything at half the normal speed. Make each movement purposeful.
5. Take time in the morning. When you wake up don't just jump out of bed. Take a moment to notice the weight of your body on the mattress. Notice your breathing. Welcome yourself to this new day.
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About Richard Stiles
I am an existential counsellor and life coach based in Camberley, Surrey. Mindfulness is at the heart of my practice and I actively encourage clients to be more mindfully aware of their lives moment to moment. I have personally been practising mindfulness for over 20 years. I work with adults in private practice face-to-face and over Skype.