Whenever somebody mentioned mindfulness meditation to me previously, I always imagined people sitting around barefoot and cross-legged sporting tie-dye clothing in a room full of dream catchers chanting ‘om’ and banging mini symbols together with the smell of burning sandalwood incense sticks penetrating the air. Whilst perfectly acceptable – having never been in touch with my inner hippy – this was not very appealing to me.
However, more and more the concept was seeping into my consciousness via life coaches I follow, business success books I’ve read and even just from switching on the television – high achievers assigning a part of their success to meditating daily.
I started to realise the stereotype I was applying was actually quite close-minded. Mindfulness meditation is being used by people from all walks of life and is a proven powerful tool for life improvement. It’s advocated and used by people for all sorts of reasons, be it to reduce anxiety, increase performance or to just hit the pause button for a while.
I decided that it was time to eat a good slice of humble pie and give it a try. I sat comfortably in a room, set my phone timer for 10 minutes, closed my eyes, breathed in and out and tried to make my mind completely blank of all thoughts. It didn’t work. The more I told myself not to think, the more I thought. I spent the majority of the time questioning when the time would be up. Let’s be honest, it wasn’t a success. I knew I would need some help with this.
Shortly afterwards, I happened to see a sign for a yoga and meditation centre. I got in touch and before I could manage to talk myself out of it, I had signed up for a 4-week course entitled Introduction to mindfulness. Mindfulness? Literally, what had I just signed up to? In short – a game changer…
What is mindfulness?
Delivered to you straight from the dictionary, mindfulness is a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feeling, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.
We can all too easily get caught up in our thoughts without stopping to notice how those thoughts are affecting our behaviour and emotions. The intent of the practice is to help you focus on the present moment, removing negative feelings from your past or worries about things yet to come in the future.
By calling to action our inner capacities for growth and healing, we begin to take charge of our lives, controlling what is controllable and letting go of the rest. This focus on the present moment, on yourself and the world around you, can improve your mental wellbeing. In fact, research has found that it increases density of grey matter in areas of the brain related to memory, regulation of emotions, empathy and learning. Additionally NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) have recommended mindfulness as a way to prevent depression in people who have had 3 or more episodes of depression in the past.
I want to be clear here, this is not a ‘how to’ guide. I truly believe in order to unlock all the benefits practicing mindfulness has to offer, you should seek professional guidance via a qualified teacher or as a minimum, through the use of a recognised mindfulness app (more on that in a bit).
For now I want to debunk some myths surrounding meditation and also give you a basic overview of what is expected…
You can practice anywhere, at anytime of day, wearing anything that you like – you just need to be safe and comfortable. It helps to find somewhere peaceful and quiet but it isn’t a necessity. Mindfulness is highly flexible around your lifestyle.
In a nutshell, most mindfulness practices involve sitting with your eyes closed and breathing – that’s it. You start with some deep breaths, you ground yourself (feeling the sensation of your weight on the chair and your feet on the floor) and then you focus on your breathing for a set amount of time. If your meditation is guided, you’ll most likely be talked through undertaking a ‘body scan’ which basically involves mentally scanning through the whole of your body acknowledging any sensations or feelings you get in certain areas and allowing each area once ‘scanned’ to relax – but other than that your work is done my friend.
You are not expected to clear your mind of all thoughts either – mindfulness involves acceptance without judgement, meaning paying attention to your thoughts and feelings, not berating yourself for having them. As a thought or a feeling pops into your head, you acknowledge it, gently let it pass and return to the breath.
And that’s another thing, you soon learn that mindfulness is all about the breathing. Our breathing changes when our mood shifts, often short and fast when we are anxious and barely noticeable when we are contented. The point is that our breathing is something we can always (excepting for a medical emergency) have control over. It’s therefore our anchor in a stormy sea, we have the ability to tune into it at any point in our daily lives and use it to calm ourselves.
There is no set length of meditation – I’ve done a quick 3 minutes in the car before walking into the office to a longer 20 minutes within a mindfulness workshop – I personally feel the longer the time the bigger the benefit, but there really is no right or wrong, any practice of mindfulness is beneficial to you. The key is frequent practice. The more you practice the more rapidly you are able to recover from negative situations.
It’s not just about relaxation, stress or anxiety relief either – mindfulness can help you perform better at work, get you energised in the mornings, allow you to unlock your best potential whilst working out, the list is endless.
Is mindfulness for you?
Are you somebody who operates on auto-pilot? Do you feel that your mind is consumed with noise not productive to you or your well-being? Then potentially, yes. Additionally, are you somebody who wants to begin to see things with more clarity? To find the key to increasing the results you can deliver, then perhaps you should consider mindfulness too.
I started practicing mindfulness at a time when I was consumed with worry about the future. I found it difficult to concentrate day to day with everything that I had going on – my mind was always wandering and I couldn’t switch off, I was a complete busy mind monkey. Within a few mindfulness sessions I was able to begin to ground myself more in the moment. Allow the thoughts to come and then let them go just as quickly. I found I was able to be more at peace in the now. Sound good to you?
Mindfulness can provide the switch within yourself to let thoughts lose their hold over you. Perhaps you’re in need of that switch?
Our thoughts also dictate our feelings, and how we feel influences everything. Practicing mindfulness can help us to focus on allowing ourselves to feel good. Is this appealing to you?
Mindfulness won’t be for everyone – what is? If it is something you would like to try, have an open mind (excuse the pun). Don’t put too much expectation on what you’ll gain from your first session. Keep in mind (again, sorry) that mindfulness is a practice (even the teachers have a teacher) which strengthens through continued use.
Taking it further
As mentioned above, I truly advocate professional guidance when embarking on your mindfulness practices. Proper support and awareness will provide you with encouragement and reassurance. To give you an indication of cost, the 4-week course I attended cost £40. Search online for meditation centres near to you. Often the meditation centres will host monthly groups to help support you in your continued practice.
Visit bemindful.co.uk where you can access an NHS Choices suggested online mindfulness course for £30. You can also search for a teacher via that site.
As a minimum I recommend use of a recognised mindfulness app. There are several good mindfulness apps available. I use Headspace, which gives you your first 10 sessions free. However, definitely give Healthline’s article – Best Meditation apps of 2018 – a read for other apps available to you.
You might also like to read: Moments: releasing anger, re-balancing & re-framing
Have you been considering meditation or is it something that you practice regularly already? If you do practice mindfulness, what has been your experience and what benefits have you gained? If mindfulness is something you started and have let lapse, it’s easy to pick it up again! Try to set aside 3 minutes daily to get back into the habit and build up from there! If you have any questions or need some support, I’m more than happy to discuss my experience with you. Just get in touch by leaving a comment below.