Mindfulness made simple
Practising mindfulness is not the art of ancient mysticism, nor perfect nirvana. As a human being, our brain, nervous system and body is biologically wired to be mindful of itself. It forms part of our in-built strategy to survive - regulating our metabolism, emotions, and homeostasis.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is simply the practice of awareness - slowing-down, pausing and paying attention to inner feelings. Focussing particularly on the breath, bodily sensations and emotions. This promotes good self-care and wellbeing.
The ability of our nervous system to observe and listen to itself is good housekeeping and promotes healthy routines. Mindful meditation helps you focus on emerging sensations in the body without judgement. For example:
- your muscle tension
- feelings of pleasure
- a knotted gut
- your relaxed limbs
- a clenched jaw
- body temperature
- eye moisture
- heart rate or the flow of your breath
It may also help you focus and better understand your emotions:
What mindfulness is not
Mindfulness does not need to be a perfect state of peace and tranquillity, an empty mind, or the zen of a Buddhist monk. It is simply an attempt to notice whatever sensations, feelings and emotions are there. Being in the moment, as present as one can be. Even if the mind wanders, gets distracted, or you feel cut-off from your emotions. Just pause whatever you are doing and observe. However, as well as observing what you feel, remain connected to your feelings. Mindfulness is not about being disembodied or escaping into a world of trance.
How to practice mindfulness
You do not have to make a chore out of mindful practice, but you do need to put in some effort. You will sometimes struggle, get bored and distracted, or even angry while you fight with your mind to remain focussed. Just be patient, let the distractions disperse and reengage. You are not doing anything wrong.
When this happens, just pause: you only need to acknowledge what is happening within, (even in the grip of anger). Observe whatever emotions you’re feeling while remaining as connected to yourself as possible. You can also connect to the surroundings you're in. Try allowing this awareness to evolve without any sense of purpose or judgement. Only curiosity.
For example, I may give in to the temptation to get caught up in a thought process about work. And rather than feel my feelings, I think of my feelings or explain them from an objective point of view. I say to myself, "I feel tense, because my boss is too demanding and critical", rather than just noticing the tension in the muscles at the back of my neck.
Analysing feelings, or talking about feelings is not the same as experiencing my feelings. Mindfulness simply says bring your wandering mind back to your bodily sensations - such as the flow of your breath, or the pain at the back of your eyes, or the relief as you stretch.
You may notice positive or negative sensations in the body as you observe. Try not to give in to the impulse to immediately change things. Sit with your feelings a while and observe them emerging, flowing and evolving.
For example, I may notice the pain of losing a loved one as I grieve, or notice the breathlessness of an anxiety attack. Rather than immediately trying to ignore, or fix those uncomfortable feelings, I allow them to be there and observe them as they unfold. However, uncomfortable, or distressing my feelings are, they are informing me about my experiences. And I need to tolerate and learn from them.
First, I need to acknowledge and process sadness, anger or disappointment, before I can move on and let go. Unprocessed emotion, merely lies dormant, building up inside, recharging itself and hijacking me later in disproportionate, or explosive ways.
You can practice mindfulness anywhere. You do not have to carve out time; schedule yourself or stick to a disciplined regime. Mindfulness is not more work to be done. It’s not about doing; it’s about being.
How often should mindfulness be practised?
It is a good idea to practice as often as possible, in quiet moments throughout your day. You can practice mindfulness little and often, long and continuous, or by immersion on a secluded retreat. In some ways, mindfulness is a very ordinary way of engaging with yourself.
Daily exercises can be seeking small windows of opportunity (e.g. breathing as you listen to someone over the phone); little moments alone (in a garden); three simple breaths; stretching in the shower; or observing the flow of your breath with the movement of limbs as you walk to work.
When you’re not used to reminding yourself to practice, you can use a 'mindfulness bell' app as a reminder (a digital timer you can find online and set to desired intervals). Always look for sensations you enjoy the most in your mindful practice. This will be an incentive to practice. For example:
- the relief at the back of your throat as you breathe
- the release of muscle tension after a massage
- the refreshment of walking in the cold, crisp air
- the deep relaxation of a shower
- observing the sunset from the top of a hill
- listening to birdsong
Mindfulness should never be a chore, but an opportunity to go within and listen to yourself - even when uncomfortable sensations are there, they are to be tolerated and learned from. Never use mindfulness as a time to think, worry yourself or problem-solve work. After a while, you will come to look forward to the time alone as a blessing. Silence and solitude are a gift in a world full of noise and over-stimulation.
Examples of simple mindful practice
Ideas of how to create mindful practice and make it your own. Not all of these ideas will suit you, and don’t try them all at once; you will get frustrated, bored, or overwhelmed.
- morning greeting - a way of acknowledging the waking moment
- sitting and listening to my body, as I lie awake
- breathing, stretching and grounding in the bedroom
- alternating hot/cold shower
- neck, shoulders and backstretch in the shower
- neck and shoulder ice-pack
- morning massage self-applied, partners and massage machine
- morning in the garden - birdsong, bee-watching; wind, rain and sunshine
- coffee tasting, fresh fruit preparation and tasting
- morning gratitude and affirmation
- walk to work/dog-walking - focus on breathing at depth, flow states, synchronising breath and movement of limbs
- favourite café visit - coffee-tasting, people watching
- office chair stretching
- arranging desk - water, ball squeeze, spritzer spray, eye drops, screen protector
- regular movement breaks
- stretching breaks
- home and garden breaks
- office chat
- outside breaks,
- home-working garden breaks
- proper lunch out of the office
- moments of silence and solitude
- midday shower
- midday walking meditation in natural surroundings
- riverside walking meditation
- running, swimming, cycling and walking meditation
- shared meal preparation and sitting at the table
- single focus activity in slow motion
- craft, gardening, making and process activities
- slowing down at night
- body compassion and hygiene exercise
- neck and shoulder ice-pack
- alternating warm/cold shower
- heat massage
- sensory deprivation meditation in bedroom or shower
- deep breath-hold and let go
- roll-over onto front-side breathing
- tense and relax all over body exercise
- touch and affection exercise
- compassion meditation
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