Making Mindfulness Work for You
Mindfulness is a topic where we can go super deep - but I'd like to keep it as practical as possible. Personally, I'm most interested in a spirituality that actually moves us forward into more joy and a deeper sense of peace. And for that, we need to learn the skills of mindful living, and practise them.
But first, let's get our heads around what mindfulness actually entails, and then... let's practice.
Making Mindfulness Work for You
We spend our lives trying to be happy, but often end up chasing our own tails. We project happiness into the future, promising ourselves that we would be happy if only we could win the lottery, get the promotion, live in a nicer house, have less stress, earn more money...
Yet the key to true happiness lies not in the outside world, but deep within.
The simple idea of mindfulness is to give you control of your life through being present to what is happening in your mind and in your body, instead of being tossed around by the chaos of the external world. When you're being mindful, your focus is on what you are doing or thinking at this moment, without worrying about the future or dwelling on the past.
Mindfulness originated with Jon Kabat-Zinn, the scientist with a PhD in molecular biology who founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Hospital in 1979. Kabat-Zinn believed that patients with chronic physical ailments can kickstart their own healing powers. He describes mindfulness as “moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness”, and believes that the practice has a profound positive impact on the physical body and the immune system. He developed the well-known mindfulness-based stress-reduction program (MBSR) that combines meditation exercises and yoga techniques. The results have been impressive: mindfulness can help to clear psoriasis much faster, relieve chronic pain, and also lessen feelings of anxiety and depression. One of his teachings is to help people develop an intimacy and familiarity with their own bodies and minds, which leads to greater confidence to learn from their symptoms and to begin to self-regulate them.
You don't have to be sick to benefit from a mindful way of living. Its simple techniques can help anyone live life with greater self-confidence and joy.
In essence, mindfulness is a way of being, thinking, and living in the moment. The simplest way to do this is to stop, focus on your breathing, and gently letting go of any bothersome thoughts or worries that emerge. Even a few minutes of mindfulness practice make a difference. For those precious few moments, don't try to change anything at all, just breathe and let go. Give yourself permission to allow this moment to be exactly as it is, and allow yourself to be exactly as you are.
Mindfulness may be simple, but it is not necessarily easy. Not only does it require effort and discipline, but also the very act of stopping and tuning in can often summon up deep emotions such as grief, sadness, anger and fear that have bene unconsciously suppressed over the years. Equally, however, it can call up feelings such as serenity and happiness. You may even find that it helps you to discover what you really want from life.
- Make mindfulness the very first thing you do each day. Wake up a little earlier than usual and, before you even move, notice your breathing. Breathe consciously for a few minutes. Feel your body lying in bed and then straighten out and stretch. Try to think of the day ahead as an adventure and set positive intentions for your day. The mindful morning routine below may also help you to make the most of the first hours of every day.
- Try stopping, sitting down, and becoming aware of your breathing throughout the day. In fact, check in with your breathing right now! Stay with your breathing practice for five minutes or even five seconds. Just breathe and let go - allow yourself to be exactly as you are.
- Set aside a time every day to just BE: five minutes would be fine, or 20, or 30. Sit and become aware of your breathing; every time your mind wanders, simply return to the breath.
- Use your mindfulness time to contemplate what you really want from life. Ask yourself 'who am I?', 'where am I going?, 'if I could choose a path right now, in which direction would I head?', or 'what do I truly love?' You don't have to come up with all the answers immediately - just persist with the asking.
- Try getting down on the floor once a day and stretching your body mindfully, if only for a few minutes. Stay in touch with your breathing and listen to what your body has to tell you.
- Use ordinary occasions to become mindful. When you are in the shower, really feel the water on your skin, rather than losing yourself in thought. When you eat, really taste your food.
- Practise self-compassion. As you sit and breathe, invite a sense of self-acceptance and cherishing to arise in your heart-space. If it starts to go away, gently bring it back. Imagine yours are being held in the arms of a loving parent, completely accepted and completely loved.
A Mindful Morning Routine
How you wake up and spend your morning has a fundamental impact on the way the rest of your day unfolds. Reflect on how you can integrate small rituals - like setting your intentions and setting aside your judgements - into your morning routine. This can give an immediate boost to your ability to be mindful, resilient, and compassionate toward yourself and others, all day long. Try these out over the next week as an experiment, allowing your experience to be your guide.
- Curate Your First Sounds. Rather than starting the day off with an alarm that makes your body startled and tense, choose an alarm that's gentle and soothing - chimes, bells, or relaxing music. This allows your body to take in something soothing to start the day.
- Check in with Your Body. On waking, sit up in relaxed posture. Close your eyes and connect with the sensations of your seated body. Make sure your spine is straight but not rigid. Scan your body, noticing where you feel tightness, clenching, or discomfort, and then release those areas where you are holding tension.
- Connect with Your Breath. Take three long, deep, nourishing breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. Then let your breath settle into its own rhythm as you simply follow it in and out, noticing the rise and fall of your chest and belly as you breathe. Extend to yourself a wish of goodwill and wellbeing.
- See Yourself Without Judgement. When you first find yourself in front of the mirror, make your face the focal point, and relax it as much as possible. Bring awareness to your forehead, eyes, cheeks, nose, lips, chin, and jaw. Now include your hair and ears. Note what you see objectively, without judgement. They're not 'wrinkles,' for example, but instead, as the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas put it, places where the face has left 'a trace of itself'. Pay attention to internal comments of liking or disliking, and take notice if your thoughts spin out - does resistance to the shape of your mouth expand into recalling a difficult conversation? Notice the emotions that cling to any of your thoughts or physical sensations. Try to bring the attention that a grandmother would bring to the face of a beloved grandchild.
- Observe Nature. Instead of checking your phone as soon as you wake up, go outside and allow yourself to take in the sky and the trees. Take a walk, admire your garden (or your neighbor's), listen to bird sounds. If you're inside, take care of the plants or spend time with your human or animal family - even just petting a beloved animal reduces stress and reminds you what is really important in your life.
- Hydrate before you Caffeinate. When you wake, your body is dehydrated. Rather than going straight for the coffee or tea, first see if you can wake your body more gently by sipping a big glass of water.
- Clear Out Some Clutter. Extra stuff isn't just cluttering your living space, it's clogging up your mind. Contemplate the joy of purging your living spaces little bit at a time, and feel the joy of letting go. Focus on small, achievable goals: one drawer, one surface, or one nook that accumulates a pile of stuff.
A Mindful Bedtime Routine
Are you getting enough sleep? For most of us, all day it's go, go, go, then at night, when you mean to shut down, it's not so easy, right? And eventually the paradox of sleep worry kicks in. Worrying about not being able to sleep gets in the way of falling asleep. And not getting the rest you crave can exacerbate other health problems.
Here are two ideas that may help you fall asleep in a mindful way.
- Look at the Simple Things First. Objectively consider your bedtime routine - anything to change? A consistent bedtime, a quiet room, and a focus on settling down go a long way toward better sleep. Is there anything you can do before bedtime that may help you settle? Notice your habits with screens, alcohol, or caffeine. How do you manage stress? How consistently do you exercise? Remember to have self-compassion: Don't judge yourself for your habits, but take firm action when ready.
- Let Your Striver Go. Are you pushing yourself too hard and taking that pressure into bed with you? Consider practising non-striving while in bed. By not trying to sleep, sleep quite often arrives. Focus on your breath or the sensations in your body. Notice the thoughts swirling in your mind: 'It's happening again; if I don't fall asleep soon I'll be so tired tomorrow." Notice it all, and breathe. Maybe there's nothing at all to do tonight except that, and to gently let go of thinking about the rest.