Be the silent watcher of your thoughts and behavior. You are beneath the thinker. You are the stillness beneath the mental noise. You are the love and joy beneath the pain. ~ Eckhart Tolle
Having enjoyed a spectacular rise to limelight in recent years, and showing no signs of slowing down in popularity, mindfulness is a millennia old practice that we are turning to in the millions in an effort to manage the stress, overwhelm and sometimes sheer chaos of our modern world. To fill the deep gnaw of inadequacy that plagues our society, to find more stillness beneath the noise, to boost our mental and emotional resilience and to help mend our pain when mental illness comes knocking.
Life has sped up at a mind blowing pace; it’s baloobas out there and we live in the age of information where horrible news is blasted at us round the clock, everyone’s ‘perfect’ lives are on constant social media show, nudging us to feel just that bit shitter about ourselves, and at the root of it all, we’re carrying around wonky and primitive brains that are millions of years old, completely out of date and in desperate need of a hardware update to be able to be fully useful to us in 2018. En mass, we’ve come to realise that we simply cannot sustain this, that we have to take measures to protect our mental wellness and happiness and update our brains so that they are evolved and adapted effectively.
Let’s just get this clear – your brain couldn’t give a flying monkeys about your happiness. Your brain just wants to keep you alive.
And to its credit, you’re here reading this, so you know, kudos brain.
The double edged kicker of this whole keeping you alive business is that it does so by constantly – and I literally mean constantly – scanning for threats. Sitting on your sofa trying to peacefully enjoy an aul Netflix binge? Your brain has other ideas. What about all the things you need to worry about? The difficult conversation you need to have with your boss the next day? What about the nasty comments on that Facebook thread? Terrorism? Why didn’t they reply to that text, what’s wrong? Your childhood – I mean, sure that was decades ago, but just for kicks, how about going over and over painful memories? And the bills you have to pay? How about going over all the ways that you’re failing, falling short in some way – too fat, not successful enough, not getting anywhere in life, single, broke, in a shit job, in the wrong relationship, not attractive enough? That mystery pain you’ve been having – possibly going to kill you, right?
It’s exhausting having a brain that has complete freedom to wander off in any particular tangent it wants, often making you anxious, stressed, overwhelmed and depressed in the process, and even more crucially, keeping your attention anywhere but in the present moment, in what’s actually happening right now.
But, but, BUT – this is the cool part – we can do something about this wonky brain! We can retrain and reshape it, effectively updating it to actually work for us and not keep us in a space of mental and physical suffering. This is what practising mindfulness is all about. It’s not about stopping lousy things from happening – trolls will be trolls, traffic will be heavy, past traumas will still have happened, bills will still need to be paid – but with space and perspective, we can dramatically alter how we respond to these challenges and in turn, dramatically alter our whole quality of life, our happiness, our wellbeing.
Yipee! There is hope.
Ok, so let’s look at how it all works. To start with, let’s define mindfulness in its simplest explanation: paying attention to the present moment, intentionally, on purpose and without judgement. That’s it in a nutshell. As Jon Kabat-Zinn (kinda like the Godfather of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction), mindfulness is ‘much a do about nothing’. It’s basically being aware of what your mind is doing, which sounds a little anti-climatic, but stay with me. The reason this is so important and so powerful, is that without actively paying attention to where our mind is at, it will wander, and because of the nature of the brain and its primary function of keeping us alive, the mind will wander into very negative and unhelpful territory.
We have between 60,000 – 80,000 thoughts a day. 80% of them are negative. 90% of them we’ve had before.
So when we bring mindful awareness to where our mind is at, we can do something about it, we can take control back rather than being swept along in the passenger seat. The other side to being mindful and awake, is that we start to notice all the breathtaking beauty that surrounds us, the countless miracles showing up in our lives each day but that we completely miss out on while zombie-deep in our smart phones or too busy chewing over that fight that happened 4 years ago.
Mindfulness helps us to notice the good and manage the bad – a powerful recipe for wellbeing and happiness in life.
We practice mindfulness both formally and informally. Our formal practice is when we choose to meditate, and this can be done either sitting, lying down, walking or standing. Most folks new to the practice will stick to sitting or lying – there’s no rights or wrongs here, it’s whatever blows your hair back.
Click here for the link to one of the first formal practices we learn, which is the body scan. If you’re on the sceptical side of the fence, this is a good starting point, no weird shit, I promise. You can leave your clothes on, you won’t turn into a monk or nun – give it a whirl.
And our informal practice is an any time, any place, any moment of the day kinda deal. You can start right now! It’s simply pausing to notice where your head is at, and time and time (and time and time and time and time and time again) redirecting it to the present moment. Here are some simple ways we can do that:
- Pause and feel into the sensation of breathing
- Feel any contact we have – feet on the floor, bum on a chair
- Noticing physical sounds
- When brushing our teeth, taste the toothpaste, feel the sensation, hear the brushing
- Pause to breath before answering the phone
- Take a few mindful steps, noticing the contact our foot is making with the ground instead of rushing mindlessly
- Choosing an activity and whatever it is, doing that and that alone with presence – e,g,, when eating, just eat (no tv, scrolling though our phones), when in conversation, really being there listening and not caught up in what we’re going to say next