Mindfulness is a hot topic these days. The word mindfulness is often used interchangeably with meditation but they are slightly different. Put simply, mindfulness is about being present in this moment, right here, right now. Not thinking about the past, not planning for the future. But awareness of this very moment. What you are doing, what you can see and hear, what you are feeling.
As you start to practice mindfulness, you realise just how little time we spend being present. Some of us will be more predisposed to living in the past, whether that be in a positive sense of reliving happy memories, or more negative, focusing on regrets about things we should have done or those we wished we didn’t. Others are more inclined to think about the future, planning and organizing, dreaming of better days ahead. But we only ever have now. So why are we so afraid to be in it? What are we avoiding?
I first developed mindfulness skills – because mindfulness is indeed a skill, it takes practice – through my yoga practice. But for a long time this was really only something I experienced either on the mat or when “in flow” at work, whenever I was really enjoying a project. It wasn’t until I was going through treatment for a serious illness that I really began to practice mindfulness in earnest.
Partly this was a coping mechanism – I am a natural planner but I couldn’t really plan much because I didn’t know on any given day how I might feel and what I would be capable of. I am also not great at relaxing or sitting still, so I needed to find things to occupy my time. And so I came to practicing mindfulness.
Sometimes this would simply be in the form of noticing things around me – like what the sun felt like on my face or listening to the breeze. Sometimes it was absorption in an activity, like colouring in (before it was cool) or knitting a scarf. Other times it would be a more formal meditation practice, with the support of some great apps.
This is when I really began to appreciate yin yoga and how it can train you to be present, and more importantly, be more comfortable in the present moment. Eckhart Tolle says that no matter what is going on in your life, you can usually cope with this moment right here. When you break life down into moments, you are usually ok in each one.
So here are my top 5 tips to develop greater mindfulness:
If you are someone who struggles to sit still, try a movement technique that can keep your mind focused on what you are physically doing. Yoga, tai chi, Qi Gong, walking, running, dancing, kayaking, a team sport – the list is endless. Find something that you enjoy, and do it regularly. Tune in to what your body is doing, what the ground beneath your feet feels like, what your emotional and mental state is.
Choose some occasions that you would normally fill with reading, watching TV or playing on your device and instead spend some time observing life around you. This might be on a train or bus, sitting in a waiting room, or even at home on your couch. Use your senses – what can you hear? Can you smell anything? What’s the quality of the light like? What are other people doing? How many have their heads buried in a device? Can you try to make eye contact with someone? What does that feel like?
Set yourself an alarm that will periodically remind you to pause and take 5 or 10 deep breaths. This might be every hour or every couple of hours. Give your full attention to your breath. Notice where in your body you feel it. Does it come easily or is it a struggle? Are the inhales and exhales the same length? Can you count your breaths and maintain focus? Remember not to beat yourself up if your mind wanders – just go back to zero and start the count again.
Even when doing seemingly mundane or routine activities, see if you can focus on what you are actually doing rather than letting your mind wander. Whether you are washing the dishes, driving a car, or cooking a meal, try to keep your attention on what you are doing and notice your own reactions and feelings. Perhaps you can observe how often your mind wanders, and where it goes. And then gently guide your attention back to what you are doing.
Try a formal meditation practice. Start small, it might be for 5, 10 or 15 minutes. There are ample free resources you can get to guide you, as well as some you need to pay for. Some apps you can try include 1 Giant Mind, Smiling Mind, buddhify, Simply Being, Headspace and many more. The key to remember is that mediation is not necessarily about banishing thoughts. There are many forms and styles of meditation, so you might need to try a few and see what works for you.
“Mindfulness is the aware, balanced acceptance of the present experience. It isn’t more complicated than that. It is opening to or receiving the present moment, pleasant or unpleasant, just as it is, without either clinging to it or rejecting it.” ~Sylvia Boorstein