As humans, we can spend rather a lot of time being active and alert: planning, problem-solving, completing our everyday tasks. This can be very draining and makes us more likely to experience stress, anxiety and symptoms of depression. So the idea of focusing on our immediate surroundings, and putting our mind and body in a stand-by mode sounds pretty helpful right?
Practising mindfulness literally directs our attention away from any kind of over-activity. And there is buckets of evidence out there highlighting its many benefits:
Reduced stress levels
Boosts working memory
Reduces emotional reactivity - how we react to events and experiences
Improves relationship satisfaction
Mental Health Foundation (MHF, 2010)
So, how can we get ourselves into a mindful state?
We recognise 2 skill sets in mindfulness; the what and how.
What: referring to what we are actually doing in the practice.
Observe - We mean noticing. Noticing what is around us; what we see, hear, smell, feel and maybe even taste, and what is within; our feelings or thoughts.
Describe - We mean saying it exactly how it is. Our opinions here are not relevant, we’re describing without judgement.
Participate - We mean throwing ourselves into the experience without judging ourselves - ever attempted a smooth move into a downward dog and accidentally let out a fart on the way? That kind of funny but embarrassing stuff, we just have to embrace and laugh along with, without worrying about it too much!
And how: this is the way in which we do the ‘what’.
Non-judgmentally: let go of evaluations, opinions, judgements - this is the accepting part - ‘it is what it is’ in the moment!
One at a time: let go of multitasking, concentrating on the task at hand - whatever the mindful task is.
Effectively: let go of right versus wrong, fair versus unfair. Act as skillfully as the goal requires, that is to do whatever is needed in the moment.
We think this sounds rather intense, but practising mindfulness doesn’t have to be super strenuous. There are different ways to practise, some will suit us, others won’t, or it might not be for us period. We have might come across structured mindfulness and being mindful, but what’s the difference?
A structured mindfulness exercise might be a meditation; what we mean by this is that it can require setting time aside, having peace and quiet without interruption and it can take quite some time to get used to sitting with ourselves in this way. An example structured exercise is the Body Scan Meditation:
Lie on your back with your legs extended and arms at your sides, palms facing up. Focus your attention slowly and deliberately on each part of your body, in order, from toe to head or head to toe. Be aware of any sensations, emotions or thoughts associated with each part of your body.
Being mindful, however, might be a simple exercise as low key as going for a walk and noticing what you see, hear and feel on the journey. It could just be being mindful while doing household chores; while doing the washing up, notice how the water feels on your hands, the contrast between the hot water and cold plates. Simply focusing on the task at hand - literally! These can be practised pretty much anywhere, anytime and we’ve probably done this a few times without even realising so it’s a great place to start introducing mindfulness. Here are some ideas:
Spend time in nature
Even the briefest of encounters with green spaces can do wonders for boosting our mood and enhancing feelings of connectedness with our natural environment. Being awe-struck by nature, whether that’s just the simple ponds in the local woods or an imposing mountainscape, is believed to help us become more attentive to our environment. As with meditation, this increased awareness facilitates feeling calm and at ease.
Try active listening
Sometimes when listening, we can be so preoccupied with what we should say in response, that we forget to really listen. Active listening is a way of preventing this, by fully focusing on what someone is communicating. We can do this by repeating back things our conversational partner has said, asking for clarification of things we don’t understand and summarising our understanding of what has been communicated. Similarly, as to when we meditate, active listening encourages us to direct our focus away from our internal chatter or ‘monkey brain’ and encourages us to accept what is, rather than judge or anticipate what could be.
Cuddle a furry creature
It has been well-established that spending time with pets can help alleviate stress. Giving your pet lots of strokes and attention is a way of simply being in the moment; the very practice that meditation helps us to realise. What’s more is that our furry friends are masters of mindfulness themselves; they can spend hours simply being; purring away or chasing their tail- look to them for inspiration the next time you find your thoughts spiralling.
Look into the eyes of someone you love
Not only does the practice of staring into the eyes of your friend or lover increase feelings of intimacy, it fosters a state known as self-other merging- meaning a greater sense of ‘oneness’ or connectedness with things beyond ourselves. Similarly, when we meditate we decrease activity in our default mode network (also known as the ‘me centre’), this is what stops our minds wandering and feel greater connection to our environments; both internal and external.
Go phone-free for a day
Nothing quite steals our attention more than our beloved phone babies. Whether we’re being pinged by work messages from our boss, or called to comment on instagram reels by our bestie, we’re in a cycle of perpetual over-stimulation when it comes to phone time. Research shows that higher phone use is associated with overall lower rates of wellbeing. So by switching off our phones, as with meditation- we create the space needed to focus our attention on one thing at a time. Can’t you feel your brain making a sigh of relief just at the thought of switching off?
Final thoughts: being mindful isn’t an easy thing to master, so be patient. Keep trying, and when you do notice your mind wandering or passing judgement on how pretty the scenery is, bring your focus back to your breathing - rather than throwing the towel in and giving up! Start with a small practice and slowly build it up, to bring it into your routines for self-care or relaxation.