Originally published in Balance Garden
Mindfulness has become a real buzzword in recent years. Over the past few decades this ancient practice steadily started to migrate its way out of monasteries and Buddhist centres and into the offices of CEOs, onto the radar of celebrities and into the awareness of sports and specialist performance coaches.
More recently it has been gaining wider traction, becoming a topic of extensive coverage in the wellness media. The impact of mindfulness on many aspects of mental health is the topic of much research and interest in the wider medical field. Workplaces across the country are beginning to offer programs for staff and yoga studios and gyms are starting to add mindfulness and meditation to their schedules.
Mindfulness in its essence is a very simple practice. A training and way of being which involves being really open and attentive to whatever is going on in the present moment. As a meditation this may involve paying close attention to one particular ‘object’ such as sound, breathing, thoughts, feelings or sensations in the body, or it may involve ‘open monitoring’ of any of the above which we may notice from one moment to the next. Mindfulness meditation can be seen as a training ground for cultivating a more mindful way of life where we are able to carry these skills into everything we do. We learn how simple tasks like walking, washing the dishes or listening can take on a whole new level of interest and meaning by engaging with the details of the experience.
Much of the popular interest in mindfulness has been for its perceived benefit as a stress reduction tool, particularly as the person who brought mindfulness to mainstream Western culture, Jon Kabat Zinn, created a popular Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program. While statistics on workplace stress and a sense of personal well-being are broadly flat over the past ten years, anecdotally and in the media there is clearly a general feeling that our stress levels are too high.
Stress is a tricky one to define. How do we know we are ‘stressed’? A stress response to a situation is mainly physical. The body thinks it is under attack and switches to ‘fight or flight mode’, releasing hormones and neurotransmitters which prepare us to act in order to survive. It’s a mobilising force which we need to get things done. But when our day to day living is filled with potential triggers, either big ones such as an important presentation at work or smaller ones such as traffic jams or even seeing a clever piece of advertising or watching an action movie, as these stack up incrementally we can easily become overloaded.
Shifts in technology have had a large part to play, particularly since the widespread adoption of smartphones over the past ten years. We now consume media for more hours per day than we sleep. The ability to communicate with people around the clock from all parts of the world is a blessing in many ways but also creates a sense of having to respond regardless of the time of day, eroding those times when we used to be able to unwind. Notifications on our phone tempt us incessantly throughout the day away from what’s happening in our real lives and down often carefully crafted rabbit holes devised by digital strategists in technology companies in order to maximise how much we engage with their product.
Another cause may be the focus of our culture on gaining financial success or other outward signs of personal achievement. Even when our phones are out of sight, there is often a constant sense of needing to be ‘doing’ something. Yet despite all the new technology and productivity apps we can download, we’re actually becoming less productive.
There are legitimate reasons why this ‘always on’ culture has repercussions for our overall health and sense of wellbeing. Many of us are constantly in ‘fight or flight’ mode. We need downtime to enable us to ‘rest and digest’, a common phrase for an important, relaxed state of being where the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, enabling us to heal, process and assimilate nutrients, thoughts and feelings, and to help maintain our sexual wellbeing. Without rest our productivity also suffers and we are less able to handle challenges in our lives with optimism, triggering instead a stress response which has the potential to spiral into more serious issues such as chronic stress, anxiety or depression.
Around the time of the Buddha in the fifth century CE in Nepal there were far fewer of these concerns. And yet the practice of cultivating a sense of stillness (samatha) was central to his teachings even then. He recognised that when our attention is left to its own devices i.e. when there is no immediate need to escape danger, find food, water or shelter, it will follow certain patterns of thought that often lead to suffering or dissatisfaction.
Modern science backs this up. A robust study has shown how the more we let our attention drift away from the present moment the less happy we feel. In neuroscience this attention wandering has been called the default mode network - the tendency of our thoughts to drift off into a mode of reminiscing or ruminating over previous experiences, to day dream or plan future tasks, or to overly fixate in one particular aspect of our current environment. The subsequent stage in these thought patterns is often to link the thought to a sense of who we are, to judge ourselves in some way. In evolutionary terms this makes sense. For survival of our species under stressful conditions we need to learn from or mistakes, plan escape routes and evaluate ourselves critically to stay alive.
Fortunately however, life for many of us isn’t all about survival. Whether we believe it or not, most of us in the West are in a privileged enough position (or with certain willful changes to how we live we at least could be) to be able to find a degree of meaning, personal fulfillment and happiness in our lives. Indeed, we also innately possess this way of being as our natural way of functioning. It’s that same ‘rest and digest’ physical state that used to allow us to spot opportunities such as a stream of fresh water in the distance or a better place to locate our homes. When we are relaxed we’re more able to be creative, to use our reasoning skills, to nurture our relationships. We become happier.
When practicing mindfulness we are cultivating that way of being. Whether we choose to explore mindful meditation or simply by slowing down and experiencing life with more openness, curiosity and playfulness, we are sending powerful signals to our body that all is well, and over time this becomes more and more habitual. Given the fast pace of our lives it’s essential that we practice this daily. Here are some suggestions:
- Noticing how you’re feeling. First thing in the morning and last thing in the evening, check in with how you’re feeling. Notice what you can about your state of mind, any emotions, how your body feels and about how you’re feeling about the day. Do it gently and with a sense of kindness towards yourself, perhaps even smiling to yourself. Try not to analyse how you’re feeling in any way, just notice it. It can be helpful to think about how you’re feeling in terms of the weather for this reason, so you can see if you’re feeling stormy or sunny without thinking about it too much. You can do this as a longer meditation practice or even just from bed.
- Create your own reminders for throughout your day. These could be an alarm set on your phone, an object on your desk which reminds you each time you look at it, or a particular sound or ritual. Make it personal. It can be nice to use a specific kind of situation that regularly creates a feeling of stress and turn it into a way of just coming back to how you’re feeling for a moment. Take a deep breath and just notice all the sounds, sights and sensations of the world around you. Appreciate what you can.
- Pick a task each day which you can do mindfully. Maybe it’s taking a walk in your lunch break, or doing the ironing. See how much you can bring the experience to life by engaging all your senses.
- Prioritise quiet time. While it may seem like there is no time to stop even for a moment, often when we really take a close look at how we are prioritising our time we notice areas where we can create some space, where we might be doing something out of habit or where the benefit isn’t quite as clear as it might have seemed. A few minutes is helpful. A weekend break free from the usual sense of needing to cram in sights and instead just doing very little is very valuable. Perhaps once in a while you might even be able to take time to go on a retreat.
- Accept when you are stressed and be kind to yourself. Rather than try to battle with feelings of stress it can be helpful to simply be curious about them. How does stress feel in your body? How does it change how you breathe? How does it affect your behaviour? See if you can invite a sense of softening of your attitude around that stress, perhaps a sense of relaxation of your body or deepening of your breath without forcing anything. Or if you need that stress to help you meet an important deadline or get something done, then see if you can appreciate and even find gratitude for that sense of urgency that will help you reach your goals. This will put you in a better position to use your stress response along with the benefits of being in a more open, functional state.