How Can it Help Me?
I always say “Mindfulness means something different to everyone’. It depends on what you need at the time. It will ‘speak’ to you, and help you, in different ways.
Being in the Present Moment
At its very heart, mindfulness is about finding ways of being in the present moment. We lead busy lives. It’s so easy to rush about from one thing to another, whilst planning dinner or the birthday card you have to send. We’re always doing.
How often do we just allow ourselves to ‘be’.
How often do we take a pause from everything in our heads, and just stop?
Mindfulness uses various techniques to help us be in the present moment. I call these ‘anchors’.
For example, mindfulness uses our breath to focus our attention, moment by moment. We always have our breath, and while we’re focussing on each inbreath and each outbreath, and the pauses inbetween...... for a brief while, we’re not focussing on our to do lists and the bills that need paying.
By being in the present moment, we are allowing our brains to have some time off from all the processing it does. We’re allowing that part of the brain that’s programmed to scan for dangers to have a little rest.
I call it the ‘meerkat’ - that area of the brain (the limbic system) that works so hard to protect us from perceived threats.
It’s not the rational part of our prefrontal cortex, but the part that shouts ‘snake!’ when it sees a stick on the path in front of you. It gives you a heads up to decide if it’s a threat or not.
While being able to tell the difference between a stick and a snake is (usually!) an easy assessment to make, sometimes it’s hard for us to understand those things that our brains tell us are threats – especially in this modern day.
Threats are more likely to be subtle, and psychological – the way someone responds to an email, a friend who hasn’t texted back, something someone has said behind your back.
Nowadays, we’re less likely to have to run from a lion, but more likely to have to navigate extremely complex social rules.
What mindfulness does is to allow our meerkats to rest, and for our prefrontal cortex (our rational brain) to assess those perceived threats – am I ok, or am I really in danger?
As well as using the breath, there are other anchors that we can use – such as sounds or sights. Imagine going for a walk, and spending that time just noticing the colours or textures around you. Use whatever anchor works best for you.
Stress and Being Realistic
It’s these perceived threats that can cause us a huge amount of stress.
As an example, perhaps you have a meeting coming up where you have to do a presentation to the Board. You’re nervous, and you can’t stop imagining all the things that will go wrong. These haven’t happened yet, so they’re perceived threats. Imagine giving yourself time off from worrying.
As another example, perhaps you’re ruminating on something someone said to you – what did they mean? What were they implying? Focussing on the past like this can often bring up difficult emotions for you – perhaps your lack of self confidence. Again – imagine giving yourself time off from worrying about this.
Worrying about the future is often a means to anxiety. Worrying about the past is often a means to depression.
It’s the push/pull of what might happen vs what has happened or what is that often causes us stress.
Mindfulness is very realistic – it doesn’t say ‘I’ll take away anything bad in your life’. That’s unrealistic. Rather, mindfulness says ‘Life happens. Good things happen, but so do bad things. What I will do is help you cope with these’.
By being in the present moment, you’re allowing yourself time out from all of these stresses, and enabling your mind to breathe, before it helps you cope with them.
With any of the mindfulness skills, it gets easier with practice. It does – I promise you.
The more you sit in the quiet and just notice your surroundings, the easier it is – you can sit for longer, or perhaps you notice more.
While we’re practicing mindfulness – whether it’s formal meditation, or some of the other concepts (see below), you’re training your brain. Your brain is made up of billions of neurons that are adaptable and can learn.
When you start, you’re forcing your brain to go down a tiny little path, where what it would rather do is carry on travelling along the paved highway. It wants to take the easy route. The more you practice, the more that little track widens. It becomes a well-used path, then it becomes paved.
One day, you’ll look back, and that highway that you used to travel along – now that will be the little path. Your brain will automatically want to travel down this new highway.
Manging our Emotions
There is a lot more to mindfulness than just being in the present moment. Think of the skill of being in the here and now as the building block to everything else mindfulness would like to teach you.
Perhaps the most useful skill – and this is subjective as everyone gets something different out of their mindfulness practice – is the ability to notice what emotions you are feeling.
By slowing down, we’re able to take stock and check in with ourselves. In this downtime, we’re able to ask ourselves ‘Ok, how am I doing? How am I feeling? What is my body telling me it needs?’
We’re able to listen to ourselves, and to give ourselves time to work out what it is we need to do (or not do).
Sometimes all we need is to notice how we’re feeling, to know what we need to do.
Sometimes we notice that we’re feeling bad – perhaps we’re feeling sad or weary or upset or hurt.
Mindfulness won’t get rid of this for us, but what it helps us to do is to just sit with these emotions for a little while. We’re encouraged to be curious about them.
By practicing this, we find ourselves being able to separate ourselves from our emotions. We’re able to hold them away from us at arm’s length. When we do this, we’re able to reduce the effect they have on us.
It doesn’t make them go away, but we are more and more able to choose how to react to them.
It might seem a strange concept to some – you can choose how to react to your emotions, and how much to let them affect you. It takes practice – practice of being in the present moment and ‘letting go’.
You can feel sad without being overwhelmed. You can feel hurt without it taking over your whole day.
Acknowledging how you feel is the first step in managing your emotions.
This helps us be more emotionally intelligent and mature human beings – where two of the main elements are understanding ourselves and managing ourselves.
Gratitude and Kindness
There’s a lot more to mindfulness, which you can explore in one of my 8 week courses, if you’re interested.
For example, we talk about gratitude – and how focussing on the positives in life help to retrain your brain – the more you’re looking out for the good things, the more your brain tunes into them.
We also talk about kindness – not only being kind and compassionate to others – but being kind and compassionate to ourselves.
How many of us are far harder on ourselves than we are on other people? I’m definitely in this category – and it is something I try and practice on a continual and regular basis.
It is difficult – which is why this only comes up in the last session of the 8 week course!
Overall, there is so much to mindfulness, and so much to help you manage your day to day lives.
I'll finish as I started – what YOU get from mindfulness will be what YOU need to hear or experience.