Mindfulness and checking in with yourself
What if I told you that one simple mindfulness practice undertaken for as little as five minutes a day could help reduce your stress, elevate your mood and even improve your self esteem? Mindfulness, an ancient eastern practice, has rocketed into the public consciousness and is gaining new ground in counselling. Research into its benefits have shown that mindfulness has a measurable beneficial effect on our brain’s grey matter, can help tackle depression and anxiety, and can help ensure that we are more present and engaged in our lives.
Mindfulness is a translation of the Indian word "Sati" which means awareness or attention. To be mindful is to purposefully and non-judgementally pay attention to the present moment. That sentence sounds deceptively simple – but mindfulness is a way of being that takes a tremendous amount of effort.
Mindfulness is being:
Present – we can become so absorbed in our thoughts and our subsequent reactions to them that we do not observe what is actually happening. We spend an enormous amount of time anticipating or dreading the future or dwelling in the past that we do not pay attention to what we actually experiencing in the here and now.
Non-judgemental – often our experience of something and our reaction are so entangled and feel so automatic we are unable to unlink them. We can hop from an experience of missing the bus to judging ourselves and drawing parallels with past failures. Mindfulness asks us to observe without assessing or judging. It gives us a space to be.
Purposeful – we have to consciously and gently redirect our minds to be mindful. It takes effort to gently redirect ourselves to what is happening in the here and now and move out of autopilot. How often have you been driving in your car and reached your destination and realised you could not recount any significant detail of your journey because you have been so absorbed in a inner monologue? In the short term this doesn’t seem damaging but unless we are purposeful we can spend huge swathes of our lives in autopilot.
Paying attention – by cutting down on the mental noise of judgement, stopping ruminating and being present we can start to notice what is actually happening. We begin to pay attention to the full range of our experiences. The prickle of sunshine on your face. The rapid tempo of our thoughts before an interview. The sharp pleasure of biting into a raspberry. Mundane tasks such making the bed take on a extra level of meaning when we open our awareness up and start noticing our thoughts, feelings and experiences. Being aware of all these sensations makes up the rich tapestry of what it means to be human.
Jon Kabat-Zinn compares the mind to the surface of sea, a helpful metaphor. There will always be waves, big and small. Whether we like it or not the surface may be churned by winds of stress that come and go. Although it is inevitable at times we may be absorbed by the water, part of it. We can, through effort, choose to step above and observe with curiosity the motions of the sea, of our mind. As Kabat-Zinn said ‘You can't stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.'
Homework – checking in with yourself
One of the most common misconceptions about mindfulness is that it involves emptying the mind. Mindfulness is not about relaxing and letting go of thoughts but of checking in with the self and observing the shape and movement of our thoughts. The key to mindfulness is that you are not trying to achieve anything. If you notice your thoughts are particularly distracting and that it is hard to keep focus, that noticing is the process of being mindful. All you are trying to achieve is setting aside a time to step out of ruminating, of being on automatic pilot and reconnect with yourself.
Make space in your life to check in with yourself daily. You can build the practice into your day; for example, trying this at traffic lights, when the phone rings, or when you enter or exit a building. Or, if you want to explore things at more depth, do this at the end of the day.
Close your eyes or lower your gaze.
Breathe gently in and out. Focusing on the breath for twenty exhalations or as longer if you feel able. Your mind may wander - that’s OK. Just gently bring it back to the breath. Let your breath be an anchor guiding you in the present moment.
When you are ready ask yourself: ‘What is going on with me right now? What thoughts, feelings and sensations am I experiencing right now?’
Something may already be waiting for you fully-formed, or it may take some time for you to be able to notice anything. Even if the sensation is indistinct, noticing something in the process of becoming can be as powerful as being able to label it exactly.
If you can try and express that inner experience, are there words attached? Any pictures? Does a metaphor sum it up? For example, ‘scrunched up inside’, ‘frustrated’, ‘like wind-up toy running down.’
If you can, try and frame the experience as ‘something in me.’ For example: ‘Something in me feels all scrunched up inside.’ By using something in me you are trying to give yourself some distance and perspective. We are greater than our thoughts, feelings or experiences, but often we can get tangled up in them. By distancing ourselves we can start to notice the shape and movement of our mind and give ourselves space and time to consider if we wish to react or simply let the experience be.
Acknowledge that feeling. ‘Something in me feels all scrunched up inside and I acknowledge it.’ Acknowledging that part of you is an act of acceptance and of letting things be without judgement. Acknowledging also takes the pressure of having to react or do anything (for now at least.) Often we can find ourselves stuck in an emotional cul de sac because we try and process and move beyond a feeling while simultaneously beating ourselves up for having the feeling the first place. Accept that the feeling or sensation is what it is. As Rilke says; ‘no feeling is final.’ Our experiences are never singular but always in flux and the sooner we accept our current reality, the sooner movement will occur.
Lay a gentle hand on where you are experiencing the thought, feeling or sensation. Is there a tightness in your throat? Is there a heaviness in your stomach? Is your heart fluttering like a bird? Place a hand on that area.
When you are ready come back to yourself and notice without judgement how the process of checking in with yourself went.