A simple guide to mindfulness
In this blog, I’ve mentioned mindfulness meditation quite a few times now. It’s been growing in popularity due to the wealth of scientific research investigating its benefits, and to how simple it is – mindfulness is the simple practice of paying attention to the present moment – being curious about what’s happening without judging. It’s a practice that I’m building in my own life and into my workshops – whether with burnt-out teachers or employees, young people in their first work placement, long-term unemployed people or people with newly-acquired disabilities wanting to learn how to deal with stress and increase their wellbeing. I encourage my coaching clients to develop a mindful practice, as it helps them detach from emotional baggage blocking them from moving forward with inspired action.
Once you’ve felt the benefits of mindfulness practice, you’ll likely want to make it a lifelong habit. It’s really easy to get started with, and this post will show you how.
But note: Mindfulness is about clearing mental distraction and allowing yourself to be in the present moment. If you tend to suppress a lot of feelings and heavily rely on distraction to feel okay, then it will of course be uncomfortable and even painful at first. If this sounds like you, you might be better joining a class with an experienced teacher, or working with them one-to-one, rather than trying it by yourself.
Otherwise, read on!
The body scan
The meditation I use most is the body scan. You can do this simple exercise lying down or sitting:
Get into a comfortable position, take a few slow breaths, and bring your attention to the little toe of each foot. Then move on to your next toe, and the next. Then bring your awareness to your ankle, calf, shin, knee… Work your way up through your body to the top of your head, just paying attention to each body part, noticing how each is feeling, without trying to change anything. If your mind wanders, just bring it back to where you left off. Notice any thoughts that arise, observing but not judging. Notice how you’re feeling as a whole. You can spend anything from a few minutes to 45 minutes or an hour on this practice.
Many people use guided meditations for their body scans; There are some great apps and books/CDs out there – you can do a free taster programme with an app called Headspace; Mindfulness (the one with white seated figure on a blue background as an icon) is also popular.
For some in-depth reading, I recommend Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living, based on his mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR)/ programme at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. Kabat-Zinn uses MBSR with clients suffering from chronic pain, heart disease, traumatic life experiences/PTSD and anxiety and mood disorders, with great success. (If you’d like to hear him speak and get a chance to practice, I’ve got a link to a video of a masterclass of his at http://soulambition.com/tv.)
Zindel Segal, Mark Williams and John Teasdale based their development of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) on Kabat-Zinn’s MBSR. They’ve written The Mindful Way Workbook: An 8-Week Program to Free Yourself from Depression and Emotional Distress.
Peace is every step
An even easier introduction to mindfulness is a wonderful book by Zen master and peace activist, Thích Nhất Hạnh. Peace is Every Step contains simple reflections and exercises on mindfulness – the awareness of the present moment.
The simplest meditation focuses on the breath:
Breathing in, say to yourself “Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in.” Breathing out, say to yourself, “Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out.” Or just say “In”. “Out”. Don’t try and change or control the breath; just pay attention to it. If you’re focusing on your breath in the present moment, you’re not worrying about what someone said to annoy you yesterday, or something you’re not looking forward to in the future. You should experience feelings of peace and wellbeing after only a few minutes of this exercise.
Anything can be mindful
The beauty of this book – of mindfulness – is that anything can be a mindful “meditation”. Since mindfulness is just about paying attention to the moment, anything you do is an opportunity to practice mindfulness and experience its benefits, lowering stress and increasing emotional stability and resilience. The next time you wash the dishes, pay attention to how the water feels on your hands; the feel of the cloth, smell of the washing-up liquid, the smoothness of a plate once it’s clean. When you eat, bring your full attention to the textures, colours, smells and tastes of your food, taking time to enjoy it instead of mindlessly wolfing it. (Having grown up in a family with seven children, this one has been particularly challenging for me! You snoozed, you losed*.) When you walk, focus on the walking, not the destination. Pay attention to the individual steps – Thích Nhất Hạnh suggests imagining your feet are ‘kissing the earth’ – and line up your steps with your breathing.
It really is this simple: Practice being fully present in each moment, noticing but not judging whatever shows up, whatever it is you’re doing.
This article first appeared in the Irish Sunday Mirror on March 22, 2015. Amazon links are affiliate links. You are welcome to share this content on your own website, with credit and a link back to this page.
*Word of the day: cacography.