How often do you find yourself reading a whole page only to find you have taken nothing in? Or sending an email then wondering what you had written or if you had sent it to the right people? Ever realised you have already eaten your lunch as you take your last bite? If so, chances are that you could be:
- functioning on ‘auto-pilot mode,’
- not consciously paying attention to your experience as it happens, and
- missing out on fully living your life in the here and now
The good news is that mindfulness may be able to help you.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a way of using your attention. It involves being awake to your experience by focusing your attention purposefully and with an open attitude, (as best you can) on your thoughts, feelings, sensations and situations in the here and now, without judging them. Mindfulness is an awareness that arises through paying attention to things as they are, rather than as we want them to be.
Mindfulness practise is mental training and is a way of training how you direct your attention! In the same way that physical training is important for a healthy body; mental training is important for a healthy mind and engaged life.
Qualities that are developed with mindfulness practise:
- Non-judging – being an open minded witness to your own experience without categorising it right or wrong, and/or good or bad.
- Patience – allowing for things to unfold in their own time, without interfering or trying to rush them along.
- Trust – developing a fundamental trust in YOU i.e. your feelings, intuition, values, what you need at this moment; instead of always looking outside yourself for guidance.
- Non-striving – understanding that there is no other goal than for you to be yourself; trying less, and being more.
- Beginners mind – being willing to see things ‘as if’ for the very first time; with a curiosity and wonderment in seeing your present moment experience as if you had never experienced it before.
- Acceptance – a willingness to see things as they are; accepting yourself as you are.
- Letting go – cultivating an attitude of non-attachment and letting your experience be what it is; letting go your tendency to cling to some aspects of your experience and reject others.
Can anyone learn mindfulness?
Yes, you can learn to cultivate mindfulness in your life in two main ways:
- Formal mindfulness meditation – Learning mindfulness meditation practises, such as focussing on your breath and/or body sensations, teaches you to develop your ability to observe and describe your experience in a non-judgemental or critical way. These meditation practises also help to increase your awareness of the unhelpful patterns of your mind that dwell on your past or fret about things that may happen in your future.
- Mindfulness in everyday life – Focus on everyday experiences in a mindful way. Do one thing at a time and connect with the richness of that experience. For example, take time to smell the aroma of your cup of tea, then notice the movement of your hand and arm to grab the cup handle, notice the sensations on your bottom lip as you rest the cup on it, notice the first experience of the flavour on your tongue, then the warmth that extends down into the stomach. Try it!
What can mindfulness offer to me?
In recent times, there has been an explosion in mindfulness research and the use of mindfulness-based techniques in medicine and psychology to assist people to manage the symptoms of depression, anxiety, stress, chronic pain, cancer distress, inflammation, insomnia, among other health problems. Developing mindfulness skills can help teach you to respond to situations in your life as well as your thoughts, feelings and sensations with intent, awareness, and compassion so that you make choices and decisions that enable you to live your life in a meaningful and fulfilling way. This can be useful if you tend to react automatically to your thoughts, other people, during conversations with loved ones, and situations in a way that you may regret or consider unhelpful to you at a later time.
Mindfulness and your brain
More good news is that practising and cultivating mindfulness in your life has been shown to have a positive effect on the brain. Practising mindfulness meditation helps to exercise your ‘attention muscle’ in the brain. Neuroscience research has shown that mindfulness meditation slows down the ageing process of the brain. Brain scans of mindfulness meditators also show that the ‘grey matter’ is thicker, compared to non-mindfulness meditators, particularly in the areas of memory, emotion regulation, attention and executive function (our ability to plan, make decisions and think). Recent mindfulness research has shown that the practise of everyday mindfulness also quietens the stress and anxiety centre in the brain, known as the amygdala. Some studies have shown that 20 minutes a day of mindfulness practise is all that is required to attain beneficial results, such as stress reduction.
Were you aware that exercising your brain with mindfulness mental training could help to improve the quality of your life as well?
It is exactly this type of brain exercise that helps to bring awareness to what is happening for you in your life, right now, and make valued choices that matter to you as you go about the business of living your life, thereby improving your overall quality of life experience.
How can you start to cultivate mindfulness?
- Where possible, do one thing at a time! Rather than read and eat, talk and eat, or watch television and eat, just eat as a single activity and pay attention to the act of eating.
- Start deliberately paying attention to what you are doing. For example, when taking a shower allow yourself to stop and notice the temperature of the water on your body, the smell of the soap, the sound of the water…..etc.
- Practise being kind to yourself and honouring what you need as it becomes aware to you. Ask yourself “what do I need right now?”. The answer might simply be to put the kettle on right now and mindfully enjoy a cup of tea!
- Stop and ask yourself each day
- “how am I feeling right now?” and
- “what is on my mind right now?”
When you respond to these questions try not to criticise or judge your experience. Instead, gently bring your awareness to your responses and respond in a compassionate, loving and kind way.
- When you awaken in the morning, pay close attention to the physical sensations of your breath for 5 full breaths – each inhalation and each exhalation.
- Learn formal mindfulness meditation practises, such as mindful breathing, body scans, 3 minute breathing space meditation and mindfulness of sight and sound practises to anchor you to your present moment.
- The next time you see your child or someone familiar to you, ask yourself if you are seeing this person with fresh eyes, as he or she really is, rather than seeing them as a reflection of your own thoughts and judgments of this person.
- Learn to notice when your mind starts to dwell on the events of the past or worry about what may happen in the future. Direct your attention and energy into the present moment (what is happening right now) and experience the precious moments of life!
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