A few months ago I posted on the topic of mindfulness: something which has become very fashionable lately. It was well received and, having had the opportunity to take part in the 8 week course and being the recipient of a free copy of Mark Williams’ and Dr Danny Penman’s book, I felt it was time to write a more detailed and considered post.
My original post was very much from the perspective of someone who had mindfulness thrust upon them (if you haven’t read that post then basically my headmaster – a young and forward thinking man – had booked a Mindfulness coach for our first INSET back after the summer holiday). I was sceptical, bewildered and, by the end of it, thrilled. For an introduction into Mindfulness and my initial reactions to it, please do see the original post. I’ll meet you back here.
Let’s start with a question: why?
“Why?” is the most powerful interrogatory sentence in the English language. It demands clarification, justification, evaluation and explanation, resulting in understanding and appreciation. Yes, I’m sure we’ve all had those moments when children have driven us mad with that three letter word, but let’s look at it for what it is: essential.
My question is: why has mindfulness suddenly become so important?
The answer seems to me to be that we live in a world which is moving at an ever-faster pace. We started the hamster wheel turning and it’s spinning faster and faster and faster and some of us just don’t feel that we can keep up. We fall and spin helplessly along with it, until we feel dizzy and lost and often useless. As we fly around the wheel, pinned in place by sheer velocity, we often trip people up, drop things, and feel incapable of stopping its progress. “I want to get off!” you hear a small child’s voice say. You look around for that small child and, in a corner, clutching desperately at the walls of the wheel as it spins and spins, is you. You’re frightened. You’re bewildered. You’re desperate for it to stop, just for a moment. Your mind whirrs faster than the wheel, trying to outrun it, trying to find a solution, and all the time the wheel keeps spinning, blurring days and nights, weeks and months, until you realise that you’ve been merely existing through this endless cycle and not living it. You get to work and can’t remember the journey. You get home after a meal out and can’t remember the conversation. You ask your significant other a question but before they’ve had time to answer, your mind has raced off and you can’t recall if you even asked the question in the first place, much less if they answered it and what sort of awful person does that make you? But you’ve got so much to do and that reminds you of six other things and what did your partner just say?
That space: that moment of silence. You heard it, didn’t you?
It’s what you want, what you crave. You need, just for a moment, stillness and quiet. A moment to catch your breath, to pick yourself up from that wheel, dust yourself off, and start walking again.
You can have it.
You don’t need to make time to read this post. You don’t need a huge to-do list, to find time or space. You don’t need a yoga mat, or to join a pilates class, or even a mindfulness course (although I’d highly recommend it). You just need to be willing to give to yourself, to allow yourself that moment to stop.
Mindfulness gives you permission to do just that and, in a world where we are incredibly tough on ourselves, that permission initially has to come from an outside source. There are all sorts of ways of achieving this but the most efficient, instant method I’ve come across (it still takes a bit of time) is to do the following: a one minute meditation. And no, you don’t need to be able to cross your legs in that weird fashion that makes you look like a pretzel. You don’t have to sit, eyes closed, thumb and middle finger touching, ohming either – although you can if you like. Personally that would make me feel silly and uncomfortable and the main objective is to be comfortable and see what your mind does.
The principle of the one-minute meditation is this – to sit, back relaxed (but ideally not hunched) eyes closed, and to pay attention to your breathing. It gives you something to focus your mind on as a starting point. I’ve actually found that just focusing on the physical sensations of breathing quiets my mind enough to start at a pace I’m comfortable with. Try it now.
It feels weird, doesn’t it? We breathe without any conscious input so it’s strange to suddenly pay attention to the sensation of the air travelling into our lungs and out again. Your mind probably wandered too – don’t worry: you’ve not got it wrong, or “failed”. Minds do wander off – just bring it back to the breathing again.
What follows, usually as a slightly longer meditation, is noticing. Notice how your feet feel on the floor – are you putting more pressure on one part than others? Don’t analyse it; don’t think about it; just notice it. It amazed me how, when I first started do do this, I could sense the whole foot. I’ve never honestly paid attention to my feet or whether I could tell where my little toe was and it was astounding that I could open my senses up in this way. Then the guided meditations in the book may take you up the body to notice the contact between the sitting bones and the chair. You’ve noticed before when you’re uncomfortable but have you noticed when you’re not? Of course, while you’re doing this, focusing on something, your mind may or may not wander. That’s fine. It’s what you do next that matters – whether you get on the bus of your thoughts, or just sit at the bus stop.
I always get on the bus.
My mind is constantly racing and every thought that crosses my mind, I pursue, following it until I’ve bumped into the next connecting thought and whizzed off in another direction. It’s noisy and tiring and tense. Actually, never mind the bus metaphor, my thoughts are like bumper cars. And so far, no matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to stop myself completely from jumping a few bumper cars before bringing myself back. And you know what? That’s OK.
If you get the book (and I highly recommend it, despite its overuse of the proverbial air quotes), you may try a meditation and feel frustrated that you can’t achieve that quiet and shush your thoughts. That’s honestly OK. There is no right. There is no perfect. There is no goal. In a world where most self-help books offer you strategies to be better, or more efficient, or slimmer, or more assertive, or less aggressive, or more stylish, or more eco-friendly, or more driven, “Mindfulness” is a refreshing change. After all, the whole problem is the speed of the wheel and the pressures we’re put under to keep up, keep progressing, keep improving: why would you bother with books that add to that pressure? It’s madness. Pressure + more pressure isn’t going to = less pressure.
All that you need to do, is notice what happens. If you eat a raisin and pay attention to its texture and scent and taste, it may well trigger a memory for you. Notice it, but let it go and return to eating that raisin. Raisins, incidentally, are incredible things. They’re the sort of snack food we just fling into our mouths as a quick snack fix but by eating mindfully, paying attention and noticing, they really can be satisfying in a whole other way.
I don’t want to discuss the ins and outs of the course too much because Mindfulness is really a personal journey and, while I’m not shy about sharing my own experiences, it would be irresponsible of me to do so as it sets up expectations and no two people in my group experienced it the same way, so to do so would give you something to judge yourself against which would be a grave error. This leads to my next point: there’s no perfect.
I must admit I found the course challenging and frustrating. I was angry that others found the body-scans peaceful and could quiet their minds, when I just couldn’t shut my mind up. When we were pushed to turning towards our anger and fears, I wanted to run from the room and it took every fibre of my being to stop myself. Others described it as liberating but I twisted and twisted a sports’ cap bottle until I broke the cap completely. During the next meditation I stared furiously at the floor, silent tears rolling down my cheeks, feeling angrier than I’d ever felt before. This is where being kind to yourself matters so much. Accept it and don’t berate yourself for it. This isn’t asking you to just be okay with things that hurt you and allow yourself to be hurt. It’s more about acknowledgement than acceptance – something that allows you to sit at the bus stop.
Williams and Penman explain the importance of acknowledgement brilliantly in their book:
“Mindful acceptance does not mean resignation to your fate. It’s an acknowledgement that an experience is here, in this moment – but, instead of letting it seize control of your life, mindfulness allows you, simply and compassionately, to observe it rather than judge it, attack it, argue with it or try to disprove its validity. This radical acceptance allows you to stop a negative spiral from the beginning; or if it already has begun, to reduce its momentum. It grants you the freedom to choose – to step outside your looming problems 0 and, in the process, it progressively liberates you from unhappiness, fear, anxiety and exhaustion.”
It all comes down to evolution (my apologies if this offends any creationist readers). If we find ourselves in a situation, for example, being faced down by a tiger, our mind immediately would haul up memories of similar instances e.g. being faced down by a lioness, in order to analyse the similarities between the two situations and help us escape. It is very rare that we need to analyse previous events in our contemporary world but, nevertheless, our minds can drag up those painful events where we have felt stress before, make connections to our current situation and, worst of all, start projecting and futures. Fatalising.
Mindfulness is, however, not an instant fix. It is a practice and needs to be treated as such. The overall effects may not even be apparent at first, but rather pop up later. For example, yesterday my husband and I went to a park and while he sat down to fiddle with his phone (I’ll let you figure out for yourself what app he’s just installed), I lay back on the grass in the sunshine and shut my eyes against the glare of the sun.
And I was in the moment.
I felt relaxed, calm, and aware. I noticed the sound of the breeze in the leaves of the giant oak trees that stood guard over us (only it wasn’t poetic like that – it was awareness of the sound of the breeze through leaves), felt the warmth of the sun on my skin, and the coolness of the grass beneath my bare arms. And my mind was quiet. I wasn’t, at that moment, thinking anything, other than noticing what was happening at that moment. It was wonderful. Usually, I’d be mentally running through a to-do list, or trawling through previous conversations, or planning my next move.
At this point, I’ve been exposed to Mindfulness for nearly seven months. I’ve been open to it, practising (when I can) letting thoughts just drift in and out, and in times of incessant mind-chatter, paying attention to my breathing. Even just that, and releasing myself from pressure, allowing myself to relax, has had a huge impact on my life.
How can it be huge? You relaxed in the park for like five minutes!
But those five minutes were glorious. 🙂 I remember those five minutes because, for once, I was there.