Do you find it impossible to stop thinking about people, events, and even work when you are supposed to be relaxing or trying to get to sleep? Do find your mind continually dwells on the past? If so, you are not alone.
Finding peace in a frenetic, fast-paced world can be difficult. Most of us are permanently connected to our smartphones and gadgets, which makes “switching off” virtually impossible. Is it any wonder that we are all stressed up to the eyeballs?
Stress is a 21st Century disease and it’s running rampant in modern society. A staggering 64% of Australians admit that stress affects their mental health with almost 40% experiencing some degree of depression. In fact, the Australian Psychological Society reports that 13% of Australians are dealing with severe depression.
How do we Deal with Stress?
The vast majority of people settle down to watch TV or a movie. Binge-watching something on Netflix is a tried and tested way to wind down after a stressful day and getting lost in a fictional world really does help to block out worries and intrusive thoughts. However, if you have been through the entire Netflix back catalogue and stress is still affecting you, it is time to learn the Buddhist technique of Mindfulness.
Mindfulness, also known as meditation, is an ancient tradition. It’s about training your mind to remain in the here and now, rather than dwelling on the past. It may sound a bit “New Age”, but you don’t need to sit in a room full of incense sticks and people dressed in caftans to practice mindfulness. Anyone can learn mindfulness. It isn’t an overnight process, but with time and persistence, you can train your mind to stop wandering and concentrate on your body, your breathing, and your awareness of the moment.
To master the art of mindfulness, you need to embark on a training process. The key to learning mindfulness is “little and often”. Whilst meditation is best done when you are sat down somewhere quiet, you can practice mindfulness anywhere: walking down the street, sitting at your desk at work, or even listening to a friend describe their latest marital woes.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness can best be described as a focussed awareness. You are aware of your thoughts and emotions, but your mind remains detached. It’s rather like watching an event from a distance. You objectively examine what’s happening, but you remain emotionally detached and completely non-judgemental.
It takes time to train your mind to enter a place where you can mentally step back and be an observer rather than a participator. To begin with, practice mindfulness for around 10 minutes a day, but as you get better at it, extend your mindfulness reflection to around 20-30 minutes a day.
Now we have covered the basics, here are some easy steps to learning the art of mindfulness.
Step 1 – Find a Quiet Place
Once you have trained your brain, you should have no problem practicing mindfulness anywhere, but to begin with, find a quiet place where you are unlikely to be disturbed. If you have kids, wait until they are in bed or at school. Make sure you are comfortable; not too warm or too cold. Unplug the telephone, switch off your electronic devices or discard them in another room.
Step 2 – Set a Timer
Set a timer so you can meditate for a specific period of time. Ten minutes is fine, to begin with, but you can make it shorter or longer if you prefer. Use an egg timer or even a stopwatch. There are even apps you can download, which can be programmed to emit a soft chime at discreet intervals, so you know how long your session has been running.
Step 3 – Relaxed and Alert Posture
Sit down somewhere comfortable. A relaxed but alert posture is best. Mindfulness is all about focussing on your physical state, so you need to be comfortable. Aches and pains will be too distracting; you won’t be able to let go if your back is hurting or your knee is twinging. Some people find it helpful to sit on a mat in a cross-legged position, but it is more important that you find a posture you are comfortable with. So, if sitting upright on a chair is more comfortable, go with this.
Step 4 – Close Your Eyes and Let Go
Now you are comfortable, close your eyes and concentrate on your thoughts. Picture your thoughts, worries, stress, and anxieties filling up a bag. Imagine setting down that bag somewhere far away and closing the door on it. It’s a way of mentally escaping your worries and concerns. When your mindfulness session is over, these thoughts are still there, but it’s up to you whether you retrieve them.
Step 5 – Slow, Steady Breathing
Focus on your breathing. Concentrate on breathing in…and out…and in…and out again. 100% of your awareness should be focussed on your breathing. Concentrate on the physical sensations of breathing. You draw air in, your lungs fill up, your chest cavity expands. Focus on breathing out, expelling warm air; your chest falls, and then your body relaxes.
Slowly count each breath…in and out…in and out. Count to ten and repeat.
If you struggle to focus on your breathing, concentrate on other parts of your body and use this to tether your mind to the present.
Step 6 – Banish Intrusive Thoughts
To begin with, intrusive thoughts will threaten to derail your mindfulness meditation. Each time your mind wanders away, haul it back and start counting your breaths, one…two…three…and so on. It’s OK for your mind to wander, so don’t throw in the towel and quit, based on the assumption you can’t do this.
Yes, you can!
Think of your mind as a naughty puppy. It will take time to train it to sit still and stay quiet. Self-criticism is anathema to mindfulness. Be kind to yourself and gently guide your mind back to where it needs to be each time it drifts away on a tangent.
Step 7 – Embrace Peaceful Awareness
Once you are in tune with your body, pay more attention to your thoughts. Once you are in a state of quiet awareness, you can notice your thoughts, but only in a curiously objective way. Let your thoughts drift around like clouds. Don’t wrestle with them. Continue to focus on your breathing and let your thoughts circulate around. You are in a state of quiet acceptance. These thoughts can’t hurt you or cause you anxiety and stress.
Step 8 – End the Session
When the alarm signals the end of your mindfulness session, open your eyes, stretch, and stand up. If your session was successful, you should feel mentally alert, but relaxed and at peace with the world. Enjoy this state of mind for as long as possible.
You also feel tired. This is perfectly normal. Mindfulness is about discipline and it can be surprisingly difficult during the preliminary stages. In time, however, your mind will adjust and enter a state of mindfulness more easily.
The more you practice mindfulness, the easier it will be to achieve the desired state of peaceful awareness. Spending 20 minutes each day in a relaxed state of quiet contemplation will do wonders for your stress levels.