I was thinking the other day the number of times that people have told me how they wish they could go back to being 20 again, but knowing what they know now. I always think that’s rather a sad way to think, as it seems to indicate that they either didn’t enjoy life then or are not enjoying life at the age they are now.
However, there is one thing that I wish I had known when I was 20. I wish I had come to mindfulness at an earlier age. I know that it would have made such a difference to my life and spared me a lot of angst and unhappiness. I spent many years agonising about the past and worrying about the future. And guess what? There was no need! It was a complete waste of energy!
What is Mindfulness?
“Mindfulness” has its roots in an ancient Buddhist practice leading towards enlightenment. Being “mindful” means “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally” (Kabat-Zinn)”. Even though it is an ancient practice, it does have a practical use today. Basically, by focussing on the present, being aware of and being non-critical of your thoughts, feelings and senses, you can learn to respond more skilfully to your experiences, rather than reacting on autopilot.
Choosing how to react
If you drive a car, you have probably experienced driving for miles without really thinking about it. Your mind has drifted off to thinking about what to cook for supper whilst you drive home from work, or you may be thinking how mad your boss is going to be if you arrive at work late again. In the same way, we are not really present in living our lives. We are off on autopilot, thinking about something else rather than what we are doing right now. The problem is that when we are in the state of auto-pilot, we don’t think about how to react to a challenging situation, we simply react as we always have in the past, and guess what? We get the same old result.
Thinking differently – making a difference
Wouldn’t it be great if we could change that? Well, the good news is that you can! By practising staying in the “now”, you can consciously set aside your usual reaction and replace it with a more constructive reaction. In other words, you can make a choice how to react. The next time a challenging situation arises – such as being stuck in a traffic jam, a supermarket queue – or being told your job is being made redundant, or your kids tell you they are leaving home – ask yourself if there is something you can do about it. If there is, then do it. If there isn’t, then stop wasting energy on it and focus on something else instead.
How to practice Mindfulness
The next time you go out for a walk, instead of focussing on the end result of the walk (either to get to work, the shops, pick up the children etc) take out your headphones (!) and pay attention as you walk to what’s going on around you. What can you see? What can you hear? What can you smell? What can you taste?
When I lived in London I used to walk to work. I wonder how many other people on their daily commute saw the same things as I? There were so many things there to see, the bustling of Borough market and the smells of the produce, the wonderful buildings with many different facets and the history that I was surrounded with. I could almost feel the salt coming from the Thames on some days, and sometimes some rather nasty smells from the drains! Walking in the present meant I enjoyed some fantastic experiences.
When you clean your teeth, practice focussing on how you are cleaning them, what the toothpaste tastes like, how the brush feels against your teeth. The more you practice focussing on the “now”, the more easily it will come to you when you are in a situation where you need to re-focus your energy.
Using meditation regularly can really help you to learn to focus on the present.
1. Sit comfortably with your hands resting on your knees, hold your spine straight and your chin tucked under. You may like to hold a lovely crystal in both hands or hold your first fingers and thumbs together.
2. Draw your attention to your breathing. Breathe in through your nose, expanding your abdomen as you do so. When you have reached full breath, mentally count up to 3 before releasing your breath through your mouth, mentally counting to 5, and at the same time pulling in your abdomen. Repeat this breathing technique as long as you feel comfortable with it. It will help you relax. Then return to normal breathing.
3. When thoughts, feelings or external sounds creep in, gently acknowledge them, let them float away and return your attention to your breathing. It is natural for this to happen, just keep bringing your attention back to your breathing.
Practice for 5 minutes to start with and then build it up as you get more experienced.
If all this seems a bit “woo woo” for you, think about it like this – if it was your last day on earth, would you spend your time worrying about what might happen tomorrow or what happened in the past? Probably not. So why are you doing it now? Many people who have had near death experiences or have been told they have a life threatening disease, change their attitude to life completely. They find a sense of liberation in being able to choose not to do stuff they don’t want to do. They have a greater willingness to take risks and are able to live life more fully in the present because they have been made aware that life does not go on for ever.
Next time you catch yourself worrying or getting anxious about something, take this test: ask yourself whether what you are concerned/worried about would matter to you if this was your last day on earth. If your answer is “no” then why are you concerned about it now?