Thanks to the popularity of dedicated apps, celebrity endorsements, and best-selling books, the term ‘mindfulness’ is now common parlance. Mindfulness offers the chance to literally change your life by changing the way you think. While the influx of attention over the past few years may seem like mindfulness is simply the latest fad, its origin is ancient and its relevance as vital as ever. To be mindful means to be fully present at the moment, observing not only the world as it appears to our senses but becoming aware of our thoughts and feelings as they arise. Through this non-judgemental observation of our mental goings-on, we come to learn to distance ourselves from these volatile and spontaneous thoughts, not letting them affect our internal mental landscape.
While this sounds nice in theory, it’s best illustrated through an example. Suppose you are someone who diligently checks the weather forecast, and the day is predicted to be nothing but sunshine. You, therefore, leave the house with nothing but your bag, leaving your jacket hanging up and your umbrella safely in its stand. Not halfway through your journey, the heavens open, and down comes the rain, soaking you through.
While you can get frustrated and angry at the weather, the forecasters, or yourself for not bringing your jacket, this is the perfect moment to practice mindfulness. Instead of identifying the negative thoughts that arise of their own accord within us, step back and observe them without judgment. You could even commentate their arrival and dispersal: “negative thoughts are happening,” “feelings of frustration are occurring,” “anxiety over appearance is now taking place.” By distancing yourself from these thoughts, you cease to identify with them. Instead, you come to see them as simple eruptions of feeling and thought that need not ruin your day.
Distancing Negative Thoughts
Let’s take a look at another example where the consequences of identifying with these thoughts and feelings could be more serious. Becky is 30, classed as overweight, and recently out of a long-term relationship. The breakup was perhaps messy, and some hurtful things were said to Becky about her weight and personality.
During times like this, there is a tendency for our minds to slip into habits of self-deprecation and even hatred, fully believing anything negative about ourselves. Becky’s mind may naturally begin to judge herself, outwardly and inwardly, leading to perpetual thoughts of inadequacy. If we indulge these thoughts, fully absorbing them, we set ourselves up for mental health issues and possibly worse. Instead, Becky could practice mindfulness, simply letting these thoughts occur and disperse as they wish without letting them “touch” her, so to speak.
Of course, this is easier said than done. Forming a habit of mindfulness can take quite a while, but there is never a better time to start than now. Below, then, are some mindfulness techniques to help develop this habit and preserve your inner peace:
Meditation allows you to fully stop for a moment, something we rarely do. By simply sitting, breathing, and quieting the mind, you are better able to see thoughts arising and passing through your awareness, like clouds. And, like clouds in the sky, they don’t last forever. Meditation, then, aids our mindfulness practice by giving us space to watch thoughts behave. We may not even be aware we are having negative thoughts until we stop and allow ourselves to enjoy a moment of quiet.
While the temptation is to suppress or sweep away these thoughts, meditation teaches us to simply let them run their course without identifying with them. Just as a pebble dropped into a pond will cause a thousand ripples, disturbing the peace of the water, a single nasty comment or bit of bad luck can send shockwaves through our minds, affecting our mental and physical health. Whereas we tend to latch onto these ripples or thoughts, mindfulness through meditation teaches us the best way to achieve “still water” is by simply leaving them be and not identifying with them.
Start with a couple of minutes a day, simply sitting somewhere quiet and observing your breathing. If you find your mind wandering, just gently bring your awareness back to the inhalation and exhalation happening, using it as an anchor point for your mind. As you build your tolerance for meditation up, you will find yourself able to meditate for longer periods, and the peace you find in these times will bleed through into your daily life, allowing you to be mindful in “real-time.”
Mindfully Engage with Daily Activities
While mindfulness is often used to counter the effects of negative thoughts, it’s also a great way to appreciate the magnificence of everyday life.
There is a tendency now for us to slip into our own little worlds where we are in the world, but not really. Perhaps you are walking your dog through the woods but are listening to a podcast, or someone is at a family get-together, and instead of being present, they are more concerned about taking photographs of the event for later reference. While these things aren’t bad in themselves, in excess, they prevent us from appreciating the magic of everyday existence.
One technique here is to eat your food mindfully. That is, cook with care, undistracted, serve elegantly, take a minute before eating to slow your breathing and then eat the meal mindfully, really appreciating the textures and tastes to their full extent. Similarly, the person walking their dog could occasionally ditch the earbuds and really be present in the woodland, taking in the natural environment as it appears to them. Mindfulness, therefore, allows you to enjoy things more deeply, without distracting thoughts and devices.
Applying mindfulness to other parts of your life is relatively easy too. For example, when exercising, rather than tune out with Netflix on the treadmill until you hit 5k, occasionally keep yourself present and experience the sensations going on as you train your body. Your workout quality will improve drastically, really creating a mind-body connection in those moments.
Lastly, mindfulness can help you sleep. When lying in bed, unable to sleep, as your mind races through the previous day’s activities or obsesses over something the next, it can help to become mindful. Stepping back from these thoughts and merely commenting on their coming and going breaks the emotional response connection to them, which is often the reason they keep us up at night.