Mindfulness as we know it today can largely be attributed to Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn, who brought it into modern corporate thinking as a way for overworked and unhappy professionals to gain perspective in often consumerist and time-constrained lifestyles. It was recently recommended to me by my mum, who, ever attuned to my frequent unravelling, suggested I should intervene internally rather than jumping to external solutions.
The crux of mindfulness is to step away from the ongoing chatter of the mind, and simply observe. I’ve been doing exercises for a few weeks now and the best way to do this is usually through meditation, a dedicated ten minutes, somewhere quiet, regulating your breathing and trying to think only of what’s happening in your body – what hurts, what’s comfortable, where you can feel your pulse. The whole aim of mindfulness is to simply note these things, spending time absorbing the sensations of the body, without trying to fix them or bemoan them. So far, so Buddhist.
You can then explore extensions to this theme, for example, becoming aware of your natural surroundings, the small noises, different lights and the smells of the world around you. The crucial part is not to judge or become annoyed by them, but just observe. In theory, this should be as easy to do in your city flat as it is on a deserted beach. It definitely isn’t. But it does take the pressure off the instant frustration you feel living in a loud, busy city – car horns, neighbours, loud music. The trick is just to absorb it, nothing more, no action required.
Usually what comes next are positive affirmations. This is the bit I find most disarming, and, well, American. You essentially have to wish yourself well. Not necessarily out loud, but in a way that acknowledges you are wishing yourself peace, good health, happiness, etc. I have yet to see the full benefit of this. I presume putting positive feelings ‘out into the universe’ is supposed to be slightly karmic, or perhaps the positive association of ‘thinking good thoughts’ helps the mind concentrate on good things. Hmm, jury’s out.
Mindfulness can be used for numerous issues and its surge in popularity means it’s now easily accessible. On YouTube, Audible and other (often free) sites such as the UCLA programme, you can find loads of useful guided meditations. Some are 60 minutes long, designed to help you sleep, while others are just three minutes, for you to practise whenever you have a busy day. They do work, simply because the act of meditation will remove your mind from whatever situation you need to escape. The challenges I face with mindfulness are, firstly, a cynicism that makes me want to write the whole thing off as nonsense, and secondly, the ongoing monologue that runs through my (and most other people’s) minds isn’t that easily switched off. However, I do accept mindfulness will take practice, and will get easier and more beneficial the more I do it.
If audio things aren’t really your bag, try either ‘Calm’ by Michael Acton, a handy and pretty book full of stuff for your brain to chew on, or ‘The Little Book of Mindfulness’ which is refreshingly simple and unpretentious.
To get the most out of the exercises, I’d recommend setting aside time each day. Some people do it at work in the morning when the office is relatively empty – I’m less keen as I’ve yet to find a good way of saying “I’m actually meditating in Room B guys, be out in five”. But mornings do seem to be better, especially in summer.
Fundamentally, if nothing else, I’ve found it’s just nice to spend ten minutes sitting, not doing, or thinking, or worrying, or planning, or rushing. Definitely worth a try.