When people discussed mindfulness I would envisage someone sitting cross-legged and entirely still on a beach in Bali meditating, dressed in hareem pants and with a totally still, clear mind in a calm and tranquil state.
This was a FAR CRY from me in my home office, trying to use my smart watch or the latest app I’d downloaded to complete a 2 minute breathing exercise. Inevitably, after 30 seconds all that had happened was I had mentally listed 15 urgent things I had to get off my to-do list before the day was out, mulled over 5 stressful conversations I “should have handled better” that morning and berated myself that I hadn’t been able to clear my mind and focus on my breath. Then I’d give up thinking, “nice one now you have wasted 30 precious seconds where you could have been doing something productive!”.
In a state of heightened stress, I could not connect with the concept of mindfulness which was synonymous for me with meditation. The serene figure with no thoughts in their mind was entirely unattainable.
Surrounded by messages of “mindfulness will reduce your stress and anxiety”, I found the EXACT opposite. Trying to meditate instead provided space for me to dwell on my zillion unhelpful thoughts, catastrophise and then “fail”, leaving a feeling that I’d made myself MORE stressed and that I was never going to be able to break out of this.
How on earth was I going to bring mindfulness into my life, in a way that worked?
MYTH BUST: Mindfulness does not equal meditation
The Oxford dictionary defines “to meditate” as “to focus one's mind for a period of time…” or “to think deeply about (something)”.
When stressed, my mind was in constant overdrive so focusing on one thing wasn’t possible in my spiralling, spider web of thoughts and thinking deeply would lead me down a negative path of worst-case scenario planning.
But, mindfulness is much wider than the mind and one focus…
Experts at the University of California, Berkeley define mindfulness as “maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens…our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future.”
Mindfulness encapsulates acknowledging our body and our present environment as well as our minds. It allows for thoughts and feelings to enter our mind, provided they are treating us, and we treat them, kindly.
The realisation that being mindful didn’t mean I had to have an “empty” brain and sit deadly still made it accessible for me. That I could still think, feel, move and acknowledge in my mindfulness time felt like a much easier standard to try and achieve.
My Mindfulness Methods
Here are six super simple ways I found to bring mindfulness into my busy, stress-filled life. The key was using physical sensations and my surroundings to help me remain in the present (as opposed to striving for emptiness) when the overactive mind was attempting to deviate to past rumination or future scaremongering.
Perhaps you can try them on for size too if meditation just isn’t working for you?
The Body Squeeze
This is super simple and can be completed right at your office chair. Take a moment to squeeze every single muscle in your body as tight as you can, hold this for a few seconds and then slowly let it all go, allowing tension to dissipate.
Repeating the process 3 or 4 times, be aware of the physical sensations. This physical release can have a calming effect on the mind.
Happy, Headphone-less Activity
Wherever you would usually occupy or distract yourself with music, an audiobook or the latest
podcast, try to resist this temptation. Allow you mind some freedom to explore what’s immediately surrounding you and going on in your mind and body.
Mindful Morning Commute
If you are a public transport user, when you are on the move instead of automatically reaching for your smartphone or tablet to scroll through emails, content or news try changing it up and simply taking in your surroundings (ideally minus those headphones again).
Allow your mind to wander freely. If you find yourself moving into thoughts and feelings that are related to past experiences or challenges ahead, notice this is happening and actively redirect them towards what is going on around you inside and outside your transport. Perhaps even brighten up someone else’s day by a quick smile to any one whose head lifts out of their phone?!
The Coffee Stop
When you go to pick up your morning or afternoon brew, instead of rushing onwards to your desk straight away, take a seat…inside the coffee shop, or at home near a window and have a mindful moment. Get that phone set to do not disturb and resist the temptation to read emails, write a to-do list or go over that presentation you have to give later.
Observe what is going on around you. Inhale the scents of baking croissants or steaming tea or coffee. Listen to the sounds of general hubbub, traffic passing or your neighbours going about their daily routine.
You could also try a quick body scan, noticing if you are holding any tension in a specific area and imagine it ebbing away with the satisfying slurp of your chosen brew.
Nature has plenty going on to help us keep our attention in the present, whilst also being calming. We can:
· observe its colours, species or varied terrain
· listen to its natural sounds and our human interruptions
· feel its warmth, chill, breeze, dryness, or dampness, how it feels underfoot and how our bodies are responding to nature.
I like to take a stroll in nature (usually with my dog Storm), but is equally beneficial to find a lovely bench or comfy spot under a tree to sit and be mindful.
Mindful Movement or the “Double Whammy”
Why not kill two-birds with one stone in the “good for us” category and acknowledge how exercising is also a great place for mindfulness?
For me, swimming is one of the best forms of exercise for this. The physical sensation of water, absence of temptation of headphones filled with music and the natural regulation of the breath alongside your stroke are great for staying present. And if my mind starts to spiral, I can focus on keeping count of my strokes or the number of lanes I have swum.
Other alternatives that I enjoy… yoga, running and lifting of weights (these do not have to be heavy! Rep counting and breathing on exertion are the key to presence).
I hope you find that one or more of these alternative methods of mindfulness useful and perhaps more accessible. What it is really all about it is using the plethora of present goings on to keep us in the moment when our minds wander into thoughts, past or future, that may not be serving or nurturing us.
My mindfulness mantra…Feel things, be present and take the pressure off!
If you are interested in working more closely on strategies that work for you, based on your own personal circumstances and what you want to achieve, with someone who has first-hand experience of overcoming stress and ultimately work-induced burnout, why not try one of my FREE exploration calls today? They are a no strings attached opportunity for some 1-on-1 coaching, to get the ball rolling on a more fulfilling existence.
You may discover that once you mind has calmed slightly that you are more open to traditional meditation – over time, and after releasing stress, I have warmed to this. I still opt for a guided meditation with spoken words and sounds to assist. My favourite is the Daily Calm on the Calm app.