Mindfulness. An embarrasing & random beginning
If you asked me what I knew about ‘mindfulness’ this time last year, I would have offered nothing more than an educated guess at it being something to do with awareness. I mostly associated it with meditation. I didn’t understand what it really meant and had categorised it as one of those ‘hippy’ activities that other people practised…..possibly in cults…..and it certainly wasn’t something I had time for! I know, it’s embarrassing to read this never mind write it down but that was the truth.
Having recently watched the Netflix docu-series ‘Wild Wild Country’ (presented extremely well IMHO) the footage showed the Rajneesh’s practice of mindfulness and meditation which looked quite tranquil on the surface. However, caught on hidden camera was the extended and rather disturbing version of what can only be described as some sort of exorcism. This ritual involved being naked, having all four of your limbs stretched out like a cat skin rug and being shook up and down in a vigorous manner. I guess there will always be extremists especially when it involves people tripping on power…….or drugs!
I thought that maybe mindfulness was OK for monks living in remote hillside locations. They didn’t have to get their ass to work and do my job every day after inhaling coffee and attempting to respond to the sustained rapid fire of questions from my children such as “where do babies come from?”.
I later discovered, not only would I benefit from mindfulness, it would become a daily practice for me and help me get into a good place. I was long overdue a lifestyle change.
Here’s the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of mindfulness (which unlike cult activity, doesn’t freak me out):-
A mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.
This time a year ago, I was far from mindful, my body and mind were dependent on the potent and reliable stream of cortisol and adrenaline that flooded my system on a daily basis. This was very different to the periods of positive stress I mostly had experience of because that was exciting and about stretching myself out of the comfort zone. This time, it was more like being in the distress zone! So obviously I made the sensible choice to drink too much alcohol! Whilst this dulled my anxiety initially, I did realise fairly quickly that it wasn’t an effective long-term strategy!
Anxiety was a new experience for me. For the most part, I kept it well hidden but I didn’t like what it was doing to me inside. I identified the sources of it, I researched it to understand it, I hired a coach to help with elements of it and gain perspective. I used all the methods in my own coaching toolbox to see how I could better cope with it. Was it a question of developing more resilience or reframing? Did I simply have unrealistic expectations or was it time to evaluate what I really wanted, reconnect with my values and start listening to my gut instinct?
At this time, my life felt like it was passing by and I wasn’t really in it, I felt like a hamster on a wheel that I couldn’t get off. I could have run to the hills (maybe one of those monasteries!) and despite not being a lover of camping, the thought of living in the woods appealed and besides, I had plenty of dry shampoo! Ok, maybe I wasn’t quite ready for that, but I was ready to shout ‘CUT’ and snap the clapper board in the film set that was actually my life. I needed to make a change and as the director in this scene, I was the only one who could.
I took up yoga (I had tried it years before but back then, my insatiable appetite for a faster pace meant I found myself restless and clock watching and I do recall being concerned about breaking wind in certain positions)!
Yoga was my first experience of mindfulness, focusing on the breath, connecting mind and body, being present. It’s now a regular part of my routine and how I start most days.
In the midst of this stressful period of my life, I received the news that a vibrant, fun loving and inspirational lady I had worked closely with had suddenly died. I was in shock, I didn’t believe it was real and even considered that it was some sort of sick twisted joke. It was however very real and truly sad. She was in her mid-fourties, had just liberated herself from a high-pressured job and had SO much more to give. She very suddenly exited this world through no fault of her own, leaving a beautiful family and countless friends behind. Devastating.
I couldn’t change this, but I could change my own situation and quite frankly, I didn’t have a good enough reason not to. The message for me was clear; life is too short. It is precious and so is my health, I needed to get out of situations that were making me feel stressed and anxious. It wasn’t accepting defeat, it wasn’t going to change, it wasn’t about me adapting. It was about making choices and being happy. I had a strong feeling that every day I woke up alive (I don’t think you can wake up any other way…but you know what I mean!) and had my health, I would be grateful and it was down to me to make the most of it. First step, I handed my final notice in at work with no job to go to. This was the beginning of several changes I would make, trusting my instinct and practising mindfulness. The changes I made were not easy but when I made them for the right reasons, to look after myself and for my family, amazing things started to happen.
The opportunity to train in Mindfulness Coaching also seemed to present itself at just the right time (ironically, I left my mobile phone at home when I went on this course which was a rather appropriate and accidental test)! I began to study and practise mindfulness. I listened to audio books on the topic and read countless articles. One of the most memorable books I go back to is The Power of Now by Eckhart Toller. His voice also makes me go to sleep (something I struggled massively with during the very stressful time) #doublebonus.
Initially my aim was to quieten the mind chatter and simply feel calm. When you experience mindfulness and observe your thoughts, it can be quite bizarre. For me, it was like watching the Andrex puppy running around with the toilet roll paper….messy, tangled and regularly changing direction!
Without paying attention, our thoughts (in a matter of minutes) can go from reliving past events to playing out imaginary future scenarios that we have no way of predicting. By practising mindfulness, you can have a different relationship with your thoughts and begin to accept whatever you are feeling. Being a natural problem solver, I have a tendency to want to ‘fix’ things and so I found being in the moment without analysing or coming up with a solution quite a challenge at first but then quite refreshing.
I go about mindfulness in a couple of different ways, one is just being more aware in any present state, paying attention to something in the moment and noticing the detail. This can be done in any space of time so you can fit it into the busiest of days. I can be mindful in the shower, whilst eating, walking, driving, watching my children play, grooming a horse or studying a bumble bee…I have noticed things I have never really seen before. Doing this, being present and focused rather than trying to do other things at the same time is really eye opening, especially in a world where distractions are constant.
I dropped the kids off at their grandma’s one morning on my way for an early start at work and noticed there were little red things in two of the long-stemmed bushes she has at the front of her house. On closer inspection I discovered they were little red ribbons tied to the branches, I told her how pretty they looked. Grandma responded by saying she put them in two years ago for Christmas and left them in. In the countless visits I made, I had never taken the time to notice them until now. What else must I have been unable to see during that foggy phase of frazzledom?!
Back to mindfulness practice! The other method I use is to find a quiet space with no distractions or noise, even just for ten minutes. I sit in a comfortable position with my eyes closed focusing on my breath. I vary between using audio tracks and complete silence to do this.
One of the hardest parts of mindfulness practise at first was trying not to think about my to do list which rivalled the length of Meghan Markle’s veil. I could be cracking my way through that list if I wasn’t sat here doing sweet FA/breathing!
It can feel extremely uncomfortable…just being with your thoughts. My mind used to race around at light speed, if I said all my thoughts out loud, I would have sounded like a complete lunatic. My own thoughts were driving me nuts and frankly, thinking can be exhausting! I found this mindfulness practice helped me to quieten the egoic mind, that side of me that at times I don’t love so much and I don’t want to listen to.
It enabled me to observe my thoughts rather than engage with them. When I feel them trying to tempt me down Past Lane, to Future Street, What If Avenue and round Crazy Common, I bring myself back to my breath and know I am being present, I don’t want to go anywhere mindlessly. I know when feelings of insecurity creep in and I watch them come and go with curiosity. It’s just a feeling and only has the meaning I attach to it.
Mindfulness is also about feeling your feelings rather than trying to forget about them or busy yourself with distractions or even chastise yourself for them. It’s OK to just feel something without necessarily having to define it and attribute it to something or someone. I used to feel responsible for trying to make everything better for everyone in my life (what a ridiculous and impossible job I bestowed upon myself)! For the first time, I am getting OK with not doing that. I can take Paul McCartney’s advice and just ‘let it be’ (I think this might been the final single released by The Beatles before Paul announced he was leaving the band, what a big decision that must have been). I have given myself permission to move on from people and situations that I can’t and don’t have to fix.
Mindfulness is about acceptance. We can’t help that as humans we have a complex internal word and emotional reactions. Mindfulness isn’t a magic tool to make you feel better, it’s about accepting everything as it is right now and the feelings you have whether they are good or bad.
It’s also about being present. Animals are a great example of this. If you watch a dog playing with a ball, a horse grazing in the field, a cat lounging in the sun, they are in the moment, content and relaxed, not thinking of anything else, just being. I can see why the office dog is becoming a more popular concept!
Patience, self-compassion and being non-judgemental are also key parts of mindfulness. We can be so cruel to ourselves with critical thoughts and self-rejection; the opposite of self-acceptance. When we are judgemental about others, it can often mean we are judgemental about ourselves.
When you look in the mirror, how quickly do you find fault? Mindfulness is about being kind to yourself, accepting yourself for who you are without judgement.
Every time you look in the mirror, find three good points about yourself (it helps to smile)! It may make you feel like a wally or it might make you laugh because you feel a bit silly but it won’t do any harm! Say them out loud (if you can) and sincerely then move on, no criticism and no negative comments. When you can shift your focus and do this frequently, you can make it a habit and alter your mindset.
Alongside my mindfulness practice, I have been keeping a journal. It is something I manage for five minutes at the end of most days. It helps me to remember what I have to be grateful for and keeps me on track. It helps me to understand and learn from mistakes and challenging situations (be curious not furious!) and focuses me on diet (as sometimes eating can even become a mindless activity) and exercise.
I know this focus of appreciating today will help me for the future but it will happen without rushing off there in my mind so I can appreciate what is right under my nose, right now.
If you want to have a bash at starting your own journal. Here are some ideas for you.
Suggested daily questions:
What good things that have happened today?
What are you grateful for?
What have you eaten?
What exercise have you taken?
What are you looking forward to tomorrow?
At the end of each week:
What have you done this week to look after and invest in yourself?
What will you do next week to be kinder to yourself?
What have you learned from challenges or frustrations?
What changes might you need to make?
Below I have put together a couple of mindfulness exercises for you to try. There are lots of guided audios out there if you need to listen to someone to get you started. It helps to be somewhere quiet where you can focus even for a few minutes.
Let's use being in the shower as an example.
I don’t know about you but I made all sorts of plans for the day during my morning bathroom routine! A great many number of people had been in that shower with me, unbeknownst to them! I did have some great ideas but it could get to the point where I didn’t even remember washing my hair.
To stop your mind racing and focus on the present experience of being in that shower (alone!), try this:
Breathe slowly and calmly, inhale for 4 second counts and exhale for 5 second counts.
Appreciate that you have hot running water, something we expect and possibly take for granted when it’s not a reality for many other people around the world.
Focus on how the shower feels, pay attention to the sound of the running water, feel the individual drops of water bounce off your skin and cascade down your body (starting to sound a little bit Mills and Boon so let’s move on)!
Notice the temperature, the warmth of the water, how it makes you feel, notice how your face feels as you wash it with the clean fresh water and how refreshed your sinuses feel.
What do your shower products smell like? If you are washing your hair, feel the texture of the shampoo and pay attention to massaging your scalp and letting go of any tension.
When thoughts try to make their way in, take the focus back to your breath, inhale for the count of 4 and exhale for the count of 5 seconds. Do I need to tell you not to open your mouth and swallow tons of water? Hopefully that is obvious and we don’t need a risk assessment for this activity.
Nature is a great place to start with this but you can do this by focusing on anything (preferably not other people via the use of binoculars....there are other names for that kind of activity!) such as part of a pattern on your trousers or curtains.
Let’s take a flower for example. I love observing bumble bees and horses mostly.
All you are doing is noticing the detail. Being aware of the pace of your breath helps. Breathe deeply in through your nose for a 4 second count and exhale through your mouth for a 5 second count. Feel calm and relaxed.
Choose a flower, really focus on it, appreciate it, notice the colour of it. Pay attention to the petals, the shape, the colours and shades. Don’t go just yet, be peaceful and patient, no rushing off in your mind or with your body. Ideally it’s best not to attempt this when you are late for something/running for a bus/trying to text someone, it’s not another activity to rush through to ‘achieve’ and tick off your to do list!
Notice the texture of the petals or the leaves and any other detail. Is it moving or reacting to the weather? Notice what you notice. If you find your mind wandering, bring yourself back to your breath.
Mindful Practice. Body Scan.
There are many ways you can do this. Initially I found it helpful to listen to a guided version. The more you practise, the more you can do it for yourself. Here is a version I like to use.
Find a comfortable position to sit in, you will need a very quiet place for this. You can just take a few minutes but the more you do this, the longer you will be able to practice.
Try not to lean against the back of a chair if possible, supporting yourself and sit up straight but stay relaxed. Have both feet flat on the floor and have your head looking forward/straight ahead but then tilt it slightly downward. Let your hands rest on your thighs.
Close your eyes. Focus on your breath, inhale through the nose deeply and count 4 seconds and exhale through the mouth slowly and calmly for a count of 5 seconds.
When you find thoughts popping into your head, connect with your breath. Have the thoughts but be aware that they are there, don’t run away with each of them.
Imagine you are inhaling light and energy into your body. Focus on each section of your body in turn. Start with your feet, wriggle your toes, notice your connection with the ground.
Move up to your ankles, a breath in breathing light and energy into them and then a breath out with each area. Move up to your legs and calf muscles then to your knees then your thighs.
Move up to your buttocks (my kids would be giggling at this bit) and hips, feel the connection with your seat, then on to your stomach, deep breath in and deep breath out.
What is your stomach telling you? You may be hungry but don't desgin your favourite sandwich in your mind just yet)! Mindfulness can help you to tune into your gut instinct. Allow that to happen while you focus on the stomach area. Spend a little more time here if you wish to but do complete the rest of the session.
Move up to your chest, deep inhaling breath into the diaphragm and deep slow breath out. Then go to your arms, elbows and hands in turn. Take your time. Wriggle your fingers, notice how relaxed and loose they feel resting on your thighs (no impressions of Reeves and Mortimore at this stage please)!
Now up to your neck and shoulders, lower the shoulders with the help of the breath. Notice any areas of tension and how you are holding yourself. If you feel tension in a particular area, spend a bit longer here focusing on the breath and relaxing that part of your body.
Then move to your jaw, be aware of your teeth and how relaxed your mouth feels. Move the breath to your nose, your sinuses, eyes, ears and up to your forehead, sit straight, reach tall as if a thread is pulling you up from the top of your head, breathe deeply and relax.
After this point, sit for as long as you need to and when you are ready, slowly and gently open your eyes, wiggle your fingers and toes and gradually allow yourself to come around.
Oh yes, quick safety warning: don’t try this one whilst driving…..it’s kind of dangerous!
Thanks so much for reading, I will end with this lovely quote:
Now is a gift. That is why it is called the present. To be fully enjoyed it must be unwrapped from the mistakes and guilt of the past and the worries for the future.