Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Mindfulness 8 Top Tips

Mindfulness takes practise and the rewards are truly worth it.  Less stress, less anxiety, a happier outlook, a healthier body, a more peaceful, calmer inner life.

Here are a few tips to help you become more mindful:

1. Wake up and smell the coffee.  Literally.  Notice the sights, smells, sounds of what is happening around you.  Notice the sensations in your body and the feelings you are experiencing.  Hold a piece of fruit in your hand, smell it, touch the skin, observe what it feels and tastes like when you take a bite.  Do this with non-edible things too, increasing your sensory attentiveness.  Close your eyes and listen to sounds you might not otherwise hear.  Try taking a 'noticing break' a few times a day to build up your practise of awareness.

2. “Slow down, you’re moving too fast, you’ve got to make the morning last…”  Simon and Garfunkel had the right idea.  I hear you say, “I can’t possibly slow down, I’ve got too much to do!!”  What is that cliché:  More speed, less haste.  You can still do a lot if you must, but slowing down means you make fewer mistakes, you are aware of what you are doing rather than trying to plough through things just to get them done.  Slowing down means you have time to appreciate what’s around you rather than blindly going through life missing out on important stuff.

3. Change your mind.  Actually, it's more about changing habits and trying something different to break patterns and shift doing things by rote.  Take a new route home from work, shop from the opposite end of the supermarket, try a food you've never eaten, wear a colour you've never worn, change your hairstyle.  Small changes that encourage you to pay attention in little ways are a big help in consciousness-raising.

4. Take a hike.  A short walk will do rather than the Three Peaks.  It's all about getting physical and doing something for your body like simple exercises, stretching, yoga, salsa classes, climbing stairs and ignoring the lift, even getting off the bus or underground one stop before your usual one.  Meditate.  Yes, meditation is doing something physical even if it's done in stillness and it really helps quieten the chatter.  Great for breathing as well.  It will help with tip number 5.

5. Stop the Wheel, I want to Get Off!  The hamster wheel of unhelpful thoughts is one of the key blockages to mindfulness.  Regurgitating grievances, angers, frustrations wreak havoc on your emotions, stress levels, immune system and general well-being.  The first step is to notice that you’ve hopped back on and the second step is to thank your mind and see if you can focus on something a lot more pleasant.  You may have to do steps one and two a lot. 

6. Kiss and make up.  Forgiveness is a great way to unburden yourself of old resentments and stop your mind from going over and over old hurts, slights, accusations, festering wounds.  Even if some of the people are dead or not contactable, you can still forgive them.  To top it off, you can also forgive yourself and stop berating yourself for things you didn't do, should have done, ought to have known better about.  Alongside this, start editing the nasty things you say to yourself when you screw up or think you've screwed up.

7. Watch cat videos.  Seriously folks, laugh more.  If it's cat videos that make you smile, stand-up comedians that make your belly laugh, funny movies that make you giggle or joking around with your mates that makes you feel all warm inside, laughter releases endorphins, shakes up your body, evens out your cortisol levels and is one of the greatest stress busters ever invented. So alongside taking noticing breaks, punctuate your day with laughter breaks.

8. Accept.  The master tip of them all, acceptance.  Noticing, without judging yourself and others, is the first step to acceptance.  A calmer mind, a gentler inner and outer critic and being more allowing of yourself and others’ behaviour all add up to accepting what is rather than wishing it was something else.  

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.

Check out Impact Factory’s range of Communication, Building Resilience, Coaching andMentoring and Personal Impact courses.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Mindfulness vs Mindlessness

We can guarantee that pretty much anyone who drives has had the experience of arriving somewhere and, having driven on autopilot, can’t really recollect the journey. 

Or take supermarket shopping, where you fill your cart with your usual fare and don’t pay much attention to what you’re doing.

What about when you’re out with friends and end up spending a goodly amount of time on your phone, checking emails, Twitter, Facebook, etc.?

The list of the way we can walk through life mindlessly is endless.

We can be just as mindless at work:  talking on the phone and reading emails at the same time is common these days.  At some point, you will lose track of what the other person is saying and/or not fully take in what you are reading.

First off, it’s really hard to be mindful all of the time given the incredibly busy lives we lead as well as our jam packed jobs.  Technology allows/encourages us to cram in more and multi-tasking is considered a great skill to have.

Second, given the pace of how we live, we do need time to drift away.  Being conscious all the time is really hard work.

In 2000 I went on a trip to the Hunstein Range in Papua New Guinea.  Two planes, a day overland in a van and three days by dugout canoe to get where I was going.  Once there, I was alert 100% of the time except when I was sleeping (and I kind of figured I was probably alert then as well).  I had to be aware of every footfall; how I bathed, dressed, ate; getting into and out of the canoe, walking over log bridges and so on.  It was dangerous and one wrong step could have led to injury or worse.

I loved the trip but part of me was so relieved when it was over because of the intense energy and focus it took to be present and mindful every waking hour.

It’s highly unlikely I’ll ever be mindful every waking hour; it’s highly unlikely most people will be mindful every waking hour.  However, all of us could benefit from being a lot more mindful than we are.

In its simplest form mindfulness is about paying attention to what’s happening around you and also to what’s happening inside you – your thoughts and feelings.  That’s in its simplest form, and it is far more complex than that.  There are loads of reasons why we can slip into mindlessness without even realising it and why that’s not always such a bad thing.

Mindlessness and Patterns

Humans are pattern making ‘machines’ if you will.  We do a lot of things by rote for very good reasons.  Our bodies are made up of interlinking ‘systems’ and those systems operate through patterns that we never ever think about... until we are ill.  When we are ill it’s because one of those systems is out of whack.  Our lives are governed by patterns so that we don’t have to re-learn things every time we want to do them.  Some patterns we learn consciously (brush your teeth twice a day) and some we learn unconsciously (things that start out as a convenience soon become the norm once we repeat them a few times).

That’s the upside of patterns:  they make our lives so much easier.

The possible downside of patterns is mindlessness:  we do things so much by rote that we are barely aware we are doing them anymore.

Here’s a simple exercise you can do right now:  review your day so far and see if you can identify anything you did that was totally by rote, so much so that you got through it barely noting you had done it.  For instance, I took the same route into work today and I can’t recall the second half of the journey – I was on automatic pilot, with my attention on my destination rather than what I was actually doing.

I’m not saying that that’s wrong; the question in terms of mindfulness is how much are we missing through being mindless in the way we do things?

Now do another simple exercise which is to identify anything you’ve done so far today when you’ve been particularly aware of what was going on around you and within you.  For instance, I was making a cup of tea in our tiny work kitchen and there were three of us crammed in and we were all working around each other in a kind of orchestrated dance:  I was aware of our chat, the kettle boiling, our laughter, the feel of the specifically chosen blue mug, the clink of the spoon and how much I was looking forward to the hot drink.

To begin to raise your level of mindfulness, see if you can take a ‘breather’ every couple of hours or so to assess when you have been mindful and when you have been mindless, or to put it in a gentler way, when you have been on autopilot and not been all that aware of the world around and within you.

The advantages of mindfulness are enormous on every level – mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually; the story continues in my next blog.

Check out Impact Factory’s range of Communication, Building Resilience, Coaching and Mentoring and Personal Impact courses.