How are the heads this morning? A little fragile…? Our first New Year’s Resolution was to Always Always Drink Water Before Bed, but as the hangovers dissipate, our thoughts turn to other resolutions for the year ahead. Eating healthier, being more mindful, being more adventurous? Whatever your focus, we’ve got some great books to help you on your way. All through January we’ll be running a series of #MotivationMonday blog posts so keep your eye out for those. One of our main resolutions is to live more mindfully, and consider our mental health and wellbeing, after a few weeks of indulgence and excess. So, we turn to the beginning of A Year of Living Mindfully by Anna Black to kick start our mindful year. Here Anna introduces the subject of mindfulness and we share an activity from the book to get you started.
WHAT IS MINDFULNESS?
Children are inherently mindful, but as we get older it’s a quality that many of us lose. We spend much of our time drifting through our days on automatic pilot, thinking about the past or daydreaming about the future.
When we think about the past there may be an element of regret—wishing we had done something differently or feeling that something positive is over. When we think about the future there may be anxiety, or a sense of dissatisfaction with where we are now. Such unease is the opposite of feeling calm.
We forget that the past has happened and cannot be changed, and that the future will be determined by what we do now—in this moment.
We can do something consciously in the present moment only if we are aware of what is actually happening in that moment. To bring that moment into our awareness we must deliberately pay attention to our experience as it is unfolding and—crucially—do so without judging it. This is mindfulness.
By regularly paying attention to our inner and outer experiences we begin to notice our habitual patterns of thinking and behavior. We notice the stories we tell ourselves about our experience, and how those stories make us feel physically and emotionally. We notice that our interpretation of events—the story we spin ourselves—is influenced by the mood we are in.
We begin to pay attention to what is going on in the body, and we can unpack “the experience” into separate strands of thoughts, emotions, and felt sensations. The experience is still present, but our awareness of each element introduces some space, and the curiosity we bring to the “unpacking” creates a sense of perspective; we relate to our experience differently, and that changes how we feel about it.
We can cultivate the quality of mindfulness through regular meditation. That might take the form of Watching the Breath for a short period or it might be done more informally, such as by drinking a cup of tea or washing the car with mindful awareness.
By regularly practicing mindfulness we learn that we have a choice about how we respond to our experience, and that when we exercise that choice mindfully our experience changes.
It is important to acknowledge that when we pay attention to our experience we may not like what we find, and it may feel the complete opposite of being relaxed. This is okay.
We are not expecting to feel a particular way, but rather learning to respond to all states of mind—not just the positive ones. Paradoxically, by letting go of the attempt to control our experience and keep the bad stuff at bay, and instead allowing it all in, we learn that we can be with the difficult things that come up in life. That makes us feel more relaxed, calm, and happy.
Mindfulness Activity: Exploring Intention
Silently ask yourself “Why do I want to practice mindfulness?” Let the question drop into your subconscious without any expectation of a particular answer. Every so often, repeat the question. Then bring your attention back to the breath, pick up your pen and notebook, and begin writing practice.
Set a timer (use your phone, or your kitchen timer) for 3 minutes. There are just three rules:
1 Don’t stop. Any time you hesitate or don’t know what to write, just repeat the words “I want to practice mindfulness because ...”.
2 Don’t edit your words or cross anything out. There is no need to worry about handwriting, spelling, or grammar—anything goes! This is for your eyes only.
3 Don’t read what you are writing until the timer has sounded.
When you have finished, read what you have written. Don’t judge it, but simply read it as a practice. You may like to highlight particular words or phrases that stand out for you, or write a sentence or two in reflection.
Continue your mindful practice with A Year of Living Mindfully by Anna Black, available here.