What is Mindfulness?
We do not need to survive anymore...
You see, your mind is made, so it forms judgements automatically. Without us having to think too much actively, we judge our experiences, we label people, things and events as good, bad or neutral. And we feel what we think. We feel what we focus on.
This way of processing the information we get was useful to us when we were hunters and gatherers- you didn’t have to meet a lion twice to make the generalization that all lions can and will eat us and getting angry and reacting aggressively was useful when our neighbour was stealing a valuable crop… it was all about surviving and our brain, to cope with all the information it was receiving, automated some functions.
But in the 21st century, we do not need anymore to survive. Maybe now, more than ever, we need to learn to be more mindful, to observe ourselves, others and what surrounds us, to be more efficient, productive, happy and relaxed.
So, what is mindfulness, anyway?
Mindfulness encourages awareness of the present moment. It is an invitation to check in with yourself and with your environment without getting emotionally involved, passing judgement or reacting. Notice- acknowledge- let go.
When you take a second to acknowledge what is happening around you and within you, you learn to respond... not only to react. What is the difference?
When you react you allow emotions and instincts to lead you- do you remember when you said last time “I do not know what happened to me, I just yelled at my friend. I was so, so angry.” That, my friend, was you reacting.
You find mindfulness in the split second which stands between a trigger and your answer to what happened. And that split second can change the story. Imagine: instead of yelling, you would have scanned your body to see how you feel- heart racing, palms sweating, the head is heavy, thoughts are rushing, and you would have asked for time out. But not time out to run away or to think about how you can hurt the other person back, but 5 minutes to calm down, to regain your composure and connect with your rational side, to feel your shoulders lighter, your heart to beat normally again. Wouldn’t that be a better idea?
It was proven that mindfulness helps a great deal when it comes to depression, panic, anger and stress. And if you consider that you do not have any problem that troubles your emotional well- being, try it anyway. Being more mindful helped me enjoy life so much more, even when doing small, routine activities like riding the bike on my way to work, etc.
Indeed, today many people make mindfulness seem complicated, trying to sell you classes, special props and all kind of other things. Or some present mindfulness as a mystic ceremony. I would say that mindfulness is nothing mystical and doesn’t have to be expensive.
I see mindfulness being a method of returning to ourselves and understanding what is going on inside of us. As we observe our child’s behaviour or how the ocean’s waves rise and fall, as we observe how elephants live and as we make time for so many things during the day, it’s only natural to take a moment and take care of ourselves- observe how we are and what we feel, acknowledge our thoughts without mandling with them. All of these for our own sake, for the purpose of growing as human beings, learning how we can live better lives and how we can show up for others and be loving and helpful, successful and fulfilled.
Ok, how do I do this?
The good part is that mindfulness meditation can be done anywhere and anytime. There is no position you have to take, no song to sing, no move to make.
Then, step by step, turn your attention towards yourself and towards the world:
Be mindful of yourself
Be mindful of your surroundings.
To be able to experience the world fully, you should observe yourself and be mindful of your own being.
While breathing deeply, imagine a beam of light which travels from your head to your toes. Follow it and scan every part of your body. Bring your attention to your eyes, mouth, shoulders, arms, back, how your legs and toes feel. Notice any tension.
Do you feel that thoughts are rushing in? Watch them as they embark on a long train. You are up on a hill, it’s your favourite kind of weather, the grass is soft, and the air is fresh. Looking down in the valley you can see a train that passes- the passengers are your thoughts. Look at the train and let it pass. Don’t try to stop the train, nor try to jump in it. Wave to it and let it go.
Put in this train your judgements and your anger, anything that might cause you to have unhelpful feelings.
Can you observe but don't judge?
Practicing mindfulness when carrying on daily activities is helpful too. Yes, at the beginning the idea might sound a bit silly, but give it a chance.
Sometimes, focusing on activities at hand and not on your thoughts can benefit you. It is especially useful when you are aware of negative thoughts that constantly come back to you and can ruin your day. What you focus on, you feel.
Instead of entertaining unhelpful thoughts… mind your own business. Seriously, start doing something with your whole being. Do you answer an email? Notice your posture at the desk, notice the room you are in, see how fast you type and how the keyboard sounds. Are you on your way to the farmer’s market? Notice the weather, how many clouds are in the sky, how many people surround you, the colour of the vegetables, the body language of the seller, how does it smell when you pass the flower lady, how coins sound when you shake your wallet, etc. Observe all and judge none. This is the world you live in. Be part of it.
Will I be “Zen” all the time?
Being mindful and practicing mindfulness doesn’t make you immune to negative feelings. No, no no.
But doing mindfulness meditation will help you respond to challenges in a way which is more helpful for yourself and for others.
I will illustrate my idea with an example: Milda is very anxious when she has to present her work in front of the classroom. Her feet are shaking, the palms are sweaty, her face turns , and she feels like she forgot everything she prepared. Therefore, she avoids such assignments and finds excuses to not participate in them.
Lately, though, she started to practice mindfulness meditation. She learnt how anxiety feels in her body. She also got clear why she feels anxious- and she discovered that it is because she is afraid of saying something stupid in front of her 20 colleagues. After practicing this kind of meditation for a while, she came to terms and accepted her fear but replaced anxiety with concern. After all, most of us are concerned that a public presentation of our work can go wrong, right? Now, when she starts feeling her chest expanding and her feet shaking before having to present something, she reads her notes one more time and puts her thoughts in a train and ships them away- now she knows they are no use to her- she knows better.
Practicing mindfulness will help you transform negative, unhelpful feelings and actions in constructive actions and helpful feelings. While anxiety paralyzes you, being concerned challenges you to find a way to overcome your fear. And being angry can transform in being annoyed, thus encouraging you to grow a flexible mindset, allowing you to use your wise mind to overcome a challenging situation.
Long story short
Try it! Try it for 5 days. If it proves useful to you, continue meditating. If it doesn’t, at least you tried and you formed an opinion of your own.
Or let others convince you. Google can take you to multiple studies that show how mindfulness is of great help to everyone, from children to old people, from rich people to poor people, from those with a lot of worries to those with fewer worries.