Updated: Jun 14, 2021
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.