Be More Present to Smile More in Life
Mindfulness seems to be an ‘in’ word nowadays, accompanied by a suite of terminology such as mindful eating, mindful living, mindful being and alike. Although mindfulness has been around for a long time, its popularity has really grown over recent years, with increased media coverage and a boom in the number of enthusiasts, practitioners, books, guided meditations, workshops, courses and apps. This means it’s much easier to learn about mindfulness and give it a go. Okay, on the flip side some may see it as just a trend that’s cool to follow, the increased conversation may sometimes have diluted it’s essence. and some may see it as a money making opportunity and have changed the original concept in an attempt to stand out and capitalise on demand. However, I beleive that mindfulness has become more popular for a simple reason – it’s because it works! It’s one technique that can help anyone deal with the hectic nature, mixed demands and ever changing challenges of life. I experienced the benefits of mindfulness and it can help you too.
Talk: The Here and Now of Happiness
Watch my accompanying video to hear me talk about my experiences of mindfulness and give you the opportunity to try a brief guided mindfulness exercise.
My introduction to mindfulness
I was first introduced to mindfulness by a therapist I saw for some cognitive behavioural therapy to tackle my anxiety. I like to think I learnt about mindfulness a little before it become so popular. In reality it had reached NHS professionals at this time and was being suggested as an exercise to support talking therapy practice, so it was pretty well known.
Anyhow at the time it was new to me. The therapist explained the theory and suggested that it would be a way to learn how to not get so caught up in my thoughts and worries. At the time, my head could easily be consumed in anxious and negative thinking patterns. I’d ruminate about past events: “What did they think of my comment in that meeting…?” “Did I react in the best way in that situation…?” I’d worry about the future: “What if this happens… or this happens…?” “How will I cope?” And I’d have negative thoughts about myself: “I’m not good enough.” “My friends don’t really like me…” Of course, these kinds of worries, doubts and concerns are very typical thoughts to have from time to time. And crucially, our brains ability to think is an essential part of being human and living.
Our wonderful minds
Our minds wonderful ability to think is crucial for helping us to function and experience life as human beings. Reflecting on our memories and the past as well as looking ahead to the future helps to inform our decisions and choices. Considering our experiences helps us to make sense of the world.Thinking can help us identify problems and find solutions, as well as come up with new ideas and innovation. Our ability to have subconscious cognition enables us to do habitual, routine tasks. Our ability to think of lots of things simultaneously enables us to multitask. And, our emotional response to our thoughts is important for our interpretation, reactions, actions and behaviours. However, sometimes our thoughts can distract us from the here and now, form being truly present, and our minds can take us to an unpleasant emotional state such as fear or depression.
My way of thinking became something I wanted to change when it began to interfere with daily life and my mood. For example, I’d be completing an everyday task such as brushing my teeth, and I would become absorbed in my thoughts. Before I knew it I was not only worrying about lots of scenarios, but feeling physically anxious too. All I had done was stand in my safe, clean and tidy bathroom brushing my teeth, but my head had taken me out of the present and into a place of anxiety.
The more my thoughts made me feel anxious, the more attention I paid to them. The more time I gave these kinds of worries and doubts, the more anxious I felt. And so I became trapped in cycle of anxious thinking.
My thinking also impacted on my behaviour. The more anxious I felt, the more I felt I’d needed to do something to stop my worries. We all have imaginations and our own inner mental dialogue. Just because we think something though, doesn’t mean it’s true or that we have to react, and we usually we make a logical decision whether to take action in response to our thoughts. However, strong emotions can disrupt your brains ability to react so logically. Since anxiety is a particularly powerful mental and physical feeling, that’s at best irritating and at worst very distressing, it is an emotion that’s very good at fooling you into believing you need to do something in response.
In an attempt to feel calmer and quell my worries, I started to take action in response to my anxious thoughts. For example, I was concerned that I’d accidentally leave the front door of my house unlocked and we’d be broken into. A typical concern for many people as it’s something none of us want to happen. As such we all commonly take reasonable steps to present this, such as ensuring outside doors have decent locks, shutting windows when we go out and installing alarm systems.
Despite knowing I’d taken standard preventative measures though, I still worried. I started to picture in my mind the destruction a burglar could cause. I let my imagination take me to envisaging the potential knock on negative impacts such an event could have. I would imagine the feelings of upset at the situation and the frustration at myself for being responsible for having left a door unlocked. Soon I had this worry repeatedly, particularly every time I left the house and because I’d given it a whole visual and emotional power, I couldn’t just dismiss it. I started to do things to try reduce my worry such as checking the door was locked repeatedly. Then I started distrusting my own judgement, doubting I’d checked properly so checking again… and so on. This is one example of how by giving our thoughts such importance and power, they can negatively impact on daily life.
Challenging my thoughts worked to some degree, but I have an excellent imagination and could readily come up with a flow of ‘but what if…’ or ‘but it could happen if…’ responses and alike. Reasoning logically worked somewhat, but anxiety is not logical! What I needed was a way to step out of the cycle of anxious thinking and behaviour.
Beginning my mindfulness practice
The therapist suggested mindfulness as a way to practice letting my thoughts come and go, without giving my worries and anxieties so much attention, without them having as much impact on me. She explained the theory and it made sense, but I’ll admit at first I was sceptical!
I remember feeling a little bewildered that I’d come to her for help and now she was saying a key thing that could actually help me was to listen to someone else guide me through a mindfulness meditation?!? I also felt a little frustrated that, rather than addressing all my actual worries and anxieties, I was being asked to sit still, focus on my breathing and let my worries arise and pass. I wasn’t convinced I could even sit still for 5 minutes at first!
Despite my initial scepticism, I tried to be open minded and couldn’t see I had anything to lose by trying, so I gave it a go…
What is mindfulness?
Before I continue with my story, what exactly is mindfulness…?
The respected mindfulness expert, and founder of the Mindfulness Stress Reduction programme, John Kabat-Zinn, sums it up well. He says it’s “Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” (John Kabat-Zinn)
Shamash Alidina, a leading mindfulness trainer and author, adds nicely to this description that it’s about paying attention in the present moment “with qualities like compassion, curiosity and acceptance.” (Shamash Alidina)
The writer of the website Mrs Mindfulness helpfully states that “Mindfulness is the opposite of mindlessness. It means waking up out of autopilot and ‘taking the steering wheel’ of our attention again.” (Melli O’Brien)
Mindfulness helps us make a conscious choice about where we direct our attention. Isn’t not about not thinking or clearing your mind, which I’ve found to be a common misconception, as the creator of Headspace explains: “Most people assume that meditation is all about stopping thoughts, getting rid of emotions, somehow controlling the mind… But actually it’s about stepping back, seeing the thought clearly, witnessing it coming and going.” (Andy Puddicombe.)
Mindfulness involves letting your thoughts naturally arise then pass, without judging them, without getting caught up in a mental dialogue with yourself, without letting your thoughts affect your present emotional state. Just being aware, accepting they are passing thoughts and being kind to yourself.
Mindfulness can be practised through meditation. This kind of meditation is typically done sitting down on the floor or in a chair, or for some exercises lying down. It can though also include standing and walking. It’s most common to focus on your breathing, given this is a strong anchor and something constant you automatically do all the time. Alternatively you may focus on your senses – your vision, hearing, taste, smell, sensation or movement.
Once you’ve got used to practising mindfulness meditations, you can then apply mindfulness to every day activities. This can help you be more present and enjoy each moment, or to calm yourself if you start feeling stressed or anxious.
My mindfulness journey
I gradually adopted a regular routine of mindfulness practice. Practising a variety of guided audio exercises and reading more about the topic to help me better understand how it could benefit me.
At a later date I started seeing another therapist. Once again, one of the first things she suggested I do was practise mindfulness. I was of course a bit like “yes I know, I’m already practicing it!” What she asked to try this time was a 30 minute body scan exercise every day. THIRTY MINUTES EVERY DAY! I am pretty sure I rolled my eyes when she suggested that!
I wasn’t convinced thirty minutes was quite necessary and in comparison my initial introduction to mindfulness with 5 to 10 minute exercises seemed easy. Plus, I thought I’d just end up falling asleep so what was the point…? Again I was sceptical more so this time not feeling I had the time for it. After some prompting though, I started to practise a body scan mediation every day. And I admit eventually it worked. I can’t put my finger on exactly how it helped at the time, but it certainly calmed my mind and overall state. Sometimes I fell asleep, but at the time I probably needed the extra rest. On the whole it became a nice relaxing activity to do, particularly after a busy day at work, and the concentrated mindfulness practise assisted to my ability to be more mindful in everyday life.
Ten minutes free from anxiety
Another kind of exercise this therapist gave me asked me to practise was mindful walking. Again, I was uncertain of the merit of this one and my honesty probably resulted in a brief eye roll to this too! I remember thinking this would feel silly and not getting why I would want to slow my walking and pay attention to each sensation of my footsteps. I liked walking fast!
I gave it a go at home and it was easier than I thought, though a little dull moving a few metres in each direction back and forth. Then one sunny, spring day I had a day off work and decided I would go for a walk around a park. At the time I was pretty much feeling anxious all the time, to varying degrees, and the toll of the anxiety of my mind and body meant I was feeling a little shakey and sensitive. When I got to the park I started strolling around admiring the flowers inbetween worries arising in my mind. Then I decided to be brave and try practice a little mindful walking whilst I was in the park. I was curious to see if mindful walking was more effective when practised outside in an open space and it seemed an opportune moment to give this a go.
So I slowed my walking and, started to notice each step, paying attention to the sensations in my feet and my body as I moved. I focused on my breathing, feeling the air enter my nostrils and my lungs and rib cage expand, then the gentle exhale. Once I’d got into a gentle rhythm of walking, I started to focus on the blossom I could smell and the colours of the flowers and trees I could see. Thoughts about what other people in the park would think seeing me walking so slowly arose, but I dismissed these knowing I was practicing something that could help. Plus, letting these concerns come and go was part of the practice.
I found I became immersed in the moment, focused on the sensory experience of walking around the park. And for about ten minutes I actually didn’t feel anxious!
Now I could see how mindfulness could break the anxious thinking cycle. I remember being so pleased to tell my therapist that I’d had ten minutes of relief from feeling any degree of anxiety and this memory has stuck with me because that moment gave me the motivation to continue my mindfulness journey. I now understood how mindfulness could be used in everyday life to not only bring calm and bring us into the present, but to enhance our enjoyment and experience.
Over the years since I’ve read various books, used a number of apps for mobiles and tablets, listened to a range of guided audio and video meditations, attended some meditation workshops and tried a variety of ways of practising mindfulness and taking a mindful approach in daily life. You’ll find links to some of these resources in the Smile Being You Directory and Product showcase.
I’ve found ways to apply mindfulness to my hobbies. For example, when I’m out running I will sometimes actively pay attention to the trees, plants and flowers on my route giving my mind a focus. I love photography and sometimes I’ll go out somewhere pretty with my camera and take a mindful approach to help me become absorbed in a lovely state of flow where my focus is completely on what I can see, helping me to notice interesting scenes to capture.
I’ve even created myself a little mindfulness practice area in my home with a meditation cushion to help me maintain a decent posture and some fitting objects on a table, such as some pebbles with the words ‘peace’ and ‘joy’ calved into them. This my sound a little hippy to you (although nothing wrong with that and the older I get the more I’m embracing my hippy side!), having a dedicated little area to meditate though can really help me get into the right mind frame. And now, just sitting down on my matt and meditation cushion brings an immediate sense of calm before I even begin a practice.
Mindfulness practice works gradually. In the moment it can be relaxing, calming. It may help you start your day well, or be a nice practice to do before bed. Or it could be something you do to centre and calm yourself in the middle of a stressful day. You gain more benefits though from practicing it regularly.
Once you’ve learnt the techniques though you can keep practicing them with our without guides and instructions. I will sometimes just sit in silence or play some meditative instrumental music. I admit I don’t always maintain a regular practice – sometimes life gets busy, sometimes I’ve overslept and haven’t time for my morning practice, sometimes I just don’t feel like it. I flex my approach and use of mindfulness to suit me, though always striving to continue my practice as I know it helps.
Mindfulness has been a key factor in reducing and overcoming my anxiety. Mindfulness can also be used to help people with other difficulties, such as pain management and reducing stress. Regardless of your individual situation, I think mindfulness can help us all:
- Calm and centre ourselves – no matter what is going on around us, or what challenges we face, mindfulness can help us access a sense of calm, peace and clarity
- Be more present – By choosing to pay attention, in the present moment, we can more fully enjoy the here and now of life
I hope this blog post has inspired you and intrigued you to find out more. There are plenty of resources to help you learn about and practise mindfulness. Here are a few of my favourites:
App: Headspace – Using the Headspace App is a fantastic way to get started. You can watch some great animated videos which explain the basics of mindfulness in a very user friendly way. The key feature though is that you can try Headspace’s 10 day mindfulness programme for free. You then have the option to sign up for more to access a large library of guided meditation exercises, around a variety of themes from stress to sleep to gratitude. You can also use the app to track your progress, set reminders and work towards badges and milestones.
Book: Mindfulness: Be mindful. Live in the moment by Gill Hasson – This book explains mindfulness and provides ideas, tips and techniques to help you enjoy a more mindful approach to life. It’s one I found to be a nice easy read, with topics I could relate to and ideas that have a practical application. I’ve even given copies to a few friends, I liked it so much!
Book: Mindfulness for Dummies by Shamash Alidina – This was the first book about mindfulness I read. It provides a helpful step-by-step guide, breaking up the reading with practice exercises. It is also accompanied by a collection of guided audio tracks providing a variety of mindfulness exercises of different lengths. These are spoken by Shamash who has a gentle, warm, encouraging tone. I put the tracks on my ipod so I can listen to them at any time.
TED Talk: All it Takes is Ten Minutes by Andy Puddicombe – This is an excellent TED talk, where the creator of Headspace, explains mindfulness in an engaging, appealing and visual way. He even uses a little juggling demonstration to aid his explanation.
Let’s all be more present
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Your experiences of mindfulness
I hope that if you weren’t already familiar with mindfulness I’ve inspired you to give it a go. And for anyone who’s tried mindfulness, I’d love to read about the benefits you’ve experienced from this as well as any helpful resources you’ve come across. Please use the comments section below.
About the Author
Watch Joanna speak about mindfulness in her talk titled The Here and Now of Happiness.