The Mindfulness Revolution
The mindfulness revolution has hit us full force, with sessions even being delivered in schools and prisons. Wellbeing gurus tell us that mindfulness and meditation are the key to a calmer, happier life. But what does that actually mean, and what exactly is the difference between mindfulness and meditation anyway? Won’t my yearly subscription to an app that I listen to on the train once a week (if I’m not distracted by social media) do the trick?
To put it bluntly, no. And that’s not to say that I’ve got anything against apps for wellness, and meditation in particular. That’s certainly how I got started; the prospect of sitting and meditating on my own without any stimuli frankly terrified me. Mindfulness is a way of life. A choice to live a little differently so as to be aware of each passing moment, with the ultimate aim of taking hold of our own consciousness to experience the vibrancy of life and all it has to offer. Sounds appealing, but impossible to achieve? Here, I revert to my usual mantra ‘start small’. But in order to even start, it’s handy to have the low down on what it is exactly that the gurus are banging on about in the first place.
On my way home from the park on my bike the other day I rode carefully through a car park, full of cars, kids and dogs. A parent shouted at their child: ‘pay attention!’ I wouldn’t have been surprised if the child had jumped out of its skin, such was the ferocity of the instruction when really there was no imminent danger to anyone; in the little rural car park everyone was being terribly polite about who could park where and letting pedestrians take priority. Of course, the parent wants to protect the child and to teach it the rules of the road. In fact, this stern warning is probably the best advice any parent can give their child, because mindfulness is simply about paying attention.
We’ve all taken a journey and not fully realised how we got to our destination, even if we were driving ourselves to it! We are constantly distracted by our thoughts, and that voice in our heads. (I call mine my ‘Roomie.’ She is terribly inconsiderate and has absolutely no regard for my desire to do anything, including sleep. Irritating). If it’s not him or her chatting ten to the dozen, it’s the radio play, the social media stream, the page turner of a book that takes our minds to another place. Because we love to escape. We use it as a way of coping with the stresses and strains that our frantic lives place on us. But even then, how many times have you had to re-read a page, rewind a story, be surprised that someone has commented on a post that you have no recollection of posting?
To pay attention. An odd phrase, especially as doing so doesn’t cost us anything. It originated in Britain in the early 1730’s so let’s just go with it. The art of concentration then, is not something that comes easily to us. But it is something that can be learned. One way to do this is to learn to meditate. Meditation is the practice of focussing on one thing for a period of time. The object of one’s focus is not so important, and the breath is often taught as the focal point, because the breath is always with us. Meditation is simply a tool for practising mindfulness, and is a highly effective way to enhance your awareness of the every day.
What is Meditation?
Meditation is often thought of as a more formal mindfulness practice, but meditation can in fact come in many forms and can be many things. Anything you do that involves all your focus on just one thing can be meditation. We just don’t have many activities that fit this description! And even if we did, isn’t your ‘Roomie’ always trying to sabotage your efforts? Chit chatting about one thing or another, telling you there are more important things to do, trying to make you feel guilty for not completing a list of other more practical tasks? Formal meditation can help you to silence your ‘Roomie’, not permanently you understand, just temporarily, just for that moment. The beauty of this formal practice is that quietening your mind is something that becomes more and more accessible, the more you train your brain and re-programme it, the more you are not just reacting to the same patterns and experiencing the same rigid thinking.
What is Mindfulness?
Yes, you are being mindful when you meditate. But mindfulness is about maintaining a heightened sense of awareness throughout your day, whether you are cleaning the bathroom, washing the windows or fixing your bike. The practice, when mastered, allows you a greater sense of connection to your life and can help you to accept things for what they are. It won’t make all your fears, stresses, anxieties or frustration disappear, but it will teach you how to let go of such thoughts and feelings and not let them affect you so much.
What’s so special about the present moment that it’s worth paying so much attention to anyway? Well, it’s all we have got. This moment. Now. The past has gone, the future has not yet happened. If you can learn to enjoy each moment of your life wouldn’t that be something special? Say you already spend 50% of your time in the present moment. (And if you do, congratulations as that’s no mean feat!) If you aimed to spend 100% of your time in the present moment you are arguably doubling your life. With no need for medical intervention!
How to get started
Mindfulness is worth investing in. A brilliant tool for helping you to master mindfulness is meditation. This can be in addition to a number of other formal and informal practices. Fortunately for us, mindfulness courses are run all over the UK and tend to be pretty good value. I would highly recommend such a course if all of this is new to you (or even if it’s not for that matter). I promise you, it will change your life and provide you with a tool kit to use again and again.