Tuesday, 9 August 2016

The Benefits of Mindfulness

I hope Mindfulness won’t be a fad that fades when the next flavour of the month comes bounding in.

Mindfulness is such an important way to develop ourselves on every level that it would be great if more and more of us aspired to and practised mindfulness as part of our everyday lives.

So what’s all the fuss about?

As I said in my previous blog, it’s hard to be mindful all of the time, but our propensity for mindlessness or operating on autopilot means we do miss out on a lot throughout each day and that creates more of a disconnect between ourselves, our bodies, thoughts and feelings and of course those with whom we interrelate.

I included thoughts in that list, but probably most of us are too connected to our thoughts so we end up spending far too much time in our minds going over and over and over ‘stuff’ that doesn’t go anywhere. 

Many decades ago I described myself as a head with something dangling from it, that’s how out of touch I was from my feelings, both emotional and physical.  My head was going nineteen to the dozen and I had enough diversionary tactics to keep my attention anywhere but on what was really important – how I interacted in the world.  Looking back, I can see that even work was a way to anaesthetise myself and still kid myself about how productive I was.

So I learned to stop thinking.  Well, no, not stop thinking outright, but certainly to be more focused, more aware, more conscious and ultimately, more present in my own life.  I got off the hamster wheel of endlessly going over the same thoughts which in turn fed emotions that were overblown and unhelpful.

Let’s unpick the benefits a bit, although if you stop and think, they’re fairly obvious.  All those hamster wheels, all that worrying and anxiety generated by those hamster wheels, contribute in a big way to stress and distress.  The more stressed we are, the greater the chances that our health will be affected and compromised.

Stress raises cortisol to unmanageable levels, suppresses the immune system, leads to depression; you can become enraged more easily, feel despair more easily, self-loathe more easily.  Without some kind of intervention your anxiety becomes an insatiable self-feeding, self-perpetuating monster lurking within.

Not only that, with our minds full of useless, unhelpful thoughts, there’s less room to think clearly about the stuff that matters, and that has to have an impact on our effectiveness at work and in our home lives. Being more present and awake and having fewer negative thoughts, conversely, has a positive impact on our lives across the board.

You could say that mindfulness is another aspect of being mature.  As children, if we were lucky enough to have good parenting and good schooling we learned to control our impulses. As adults, we still need to keep practising ‘impulse control’, especially our often ungoverned, often irrational, often over-emotional thinking.

Where to begin? 

Noticing is always a good place to begin.  Our daily lives give us endless opportunities to notice what’s going on and I recommend starting with food.  I know very few people who just eat; most of us do something else at the same time:  watch the telly, check our social media connections, read, talk on the phone, etc.

At work we eat at our desks or on the run or gobble something so we can peruse the shops.

So for starters, try to eat one meal where that’s all you do – eat.  First step:  breathe.  Without breath there is no life and yet most people have little awareness of their breath and yet breath aids or undermines how we feel.  So take a couple of deep breaths before you begin.

As you are preparing the food, take in the smells, sounds, tastes, visuals.  See if you can slow down the process so you are fully aware of everything you are doing.  When you sit down, take time to look at your plate and notice the colours, how you’ve placed the food on the plate, what sounds you can hear around you; notice what your thoughts are and your feelings.  Once you start eating, notice the tastes, your chewing and swallowing and your breathing.

Notice if you become impatient and are itching to switch on the telly, check your emails, or feel bored and restless.  Notice if you start giving yourself a hard time, if you expect more of yourself, if you’re criticising yourself for not doing mindfulness ‘correctly’ and so on.

Well here’s the punchline, the most important, vital key to mindfulness:  acceptance.  Huh?  Yup, it’s to notice without judgement, without that little nasty inside voice disapproving, complaining, blaming, fault-finding.

This is definitely the most challenging aspect of mindfulness for a lot of people:  letting go of the hamster wheel long enough to get off it and accept where they are, what they observe, what they are feeling and what they are thinking.  By practising noticing without judgement, doing a bit more each day, the benefits will also mount up and life will definitely be a better place to reside.

So here’s to less thinking and more noticing.



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