Mindfulness is a paradox; it is both the easiest and the hardest thing to do.
Being in the moment, using our senses to become aware of ourselves and our environment can be easy, when we are in a good space (emotionally). Unfortunately, we are not always in a great space emotionally. For example, when we are stressed it can be very hard to get beyond our mental tape loops (the self-talk that replays the problem over and over). Paradoxically it is when we are stressed that paying attention to how we feel, and being in the moment, can help us the most. It gives us perspective and moves us beyond our spiral of pain/stress. Additionally, it can be very hard to see solutions to our problems when we are immersed in them. Mental attentiveness gives us breathing room to gain perspective in our lives and allows our creativity and problem solving skills to surface.
A mindfulness experiment
A simple mindfulness experiment is to pay attention to your hand, with curiosity and an open mind. Hold it up and become aware of the colour of your skin, the lines across your palm, the feeling of your heart beating to the rhythm of your blood flowing under the skin. Not too difficult right? Now imagine trying to do the same experiment when at the dentist (without Novocain). Paying attention to your hand, with an open mind and curiosity, is far easier when you are not distracted by pain and the noise of the dentist’s drill. It is far more difficult to be in the moment, and to explore our micro and macro worlds, in moments of grief or physical pain or when we are bombarded with external stimuli and data. All is not lost though, we can increase our skill and become more adept at mindfulness with practise. It takes time to learn a new way of being; be kind to yourself and take it one step at a time.
5 key approaches to making mindfulness easier:
1. Mindfulness is most effective as a sensory experience.
Take a few minutes to notice your breathing. Become aware of the flow of your breath in and out and the rise and fall of your belly. Note: we have a tendency to take shallow breaths when we are stressed – effective breathing requires us to breathe from the belly allowing for full oxygenation. Try it for yourself: breathing up and down (chest and shoulders rising) versus deep belly breaths (expanding your stomach out – not as flattering but far more effective in getting more oxygen). Add your other senses. Become aware of what you smell, what you taste, what you hear and touch. The more multi-dimensional the sensations the more effective it is. This greater awareness of your body should become part of your daily experience especially when you experience something fun, or achieve a goal. Taking a moment to become aware of the experience in a multi sensory type of way can make it far easier to remember and anchor later. For example, when you have just signed the big deal – what do you hear? What do you see (small details like the blinds fluttering in the wind)? What can you smell (the scent of the muffins on the boardroom table)? What can you feel (temperature, texture, touch) etc? Make the awareness as vivid as possible. This will enable you to visualise goals and relaxation triggers more effectively.
2. Memory and imagination are powerful tools in mindfulness practise.
Our brains do not know the difference between what we imagine, and what actually happens. The brain lights up in the same way and releases the same chemicals whether we remember, imagine or actually experience an event. Talking about an emotional event can often bring up the same emotions again even though we are no longer actually experiencing the event anymore. This can happen when we share the story of how someone cut us off in traffic on the way to work and then gestured rudely out of the window when we hooted at them. Telling the story releases the same chemicals (adrenalin and cortisol) that the actual event did. Imagining or remembering a relaxing experience can change our body posture, muscle tension and the chemicals released in our bodies. Imagine or remember the feeling of getting into a hot bath after a long day at work, imagine the scent of your favourite bath salts and the feeling of the water enveloping you and soaking away your tension.
Video: Dynamic visualisation (Imagining a lemon)
3. Take a break from doing.
We often feel we should be doing something. Being constantly busy prevents us from noticing a lot of what is happening inside our heads, and outside in our environment. It is important in developing our ability to be mindful in the moment to sometimes take a break from always doing things, and just be in the moment. When your mind heads back to thinking about specifics, gently bring it back to your breath. Take a moment to listen. Hear your heartbeat, become aware of your thoughts. It can be very powerful to remind ourselves that thoughts are simply that – thoughts. We don’t need to believe them all or even react to all of them. One of the great things about mindfulness is that it’s available to us in each moment. Become aware of the moments when we tend to zone out (e.g., driving, emailing or texting, web surfing, doing dishes, brushing teeth, etc.). Practise bringing more awareness to that activity.
4. Pay attention to the moment.
Many incorrectly believe that mindfulness practise is best done while sitting in a meditative state. This greatly limits our opportunities to practise. In order to improve our skills and achieve a truly calm and clear mind (obtaining the full benefits), we can’t just practise while sitting and meditating. We also need to be mindful in our everyday life, after all, what good is something which only has benefits in a quiet room? Developing the skills of being in the moment and quieting our minds can have direct positive benefits in our everyday life. Paying attention to what we are doing, as we are doing it, develops our ability to be more mindful. Paying specific attention to our senses when we are eating, as an example, helps us notice the colour, texture and taste of our food. This enables us to apply what we have learned in more areas of our lives. For example, becoming more aware of what we feel in a business meeting, as well as what others are feeling, can help us manage that relationship and negotiate more effectively.
5. Mindfulness is about incremental changes that are life changing over time, not a quick fix.
Pick one element to practise each day. Be kind to yourself and remember it takes time and practise. Small improvements each day lead to large changes over time. When we try “fix” or “get it right” in one sitting. we tend to have greater resistance and it is easier to give up when it doesn’t drastically alter our lives immediately. Don’t set yourself up for failure. It takes time to learn new ways of being.
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