Taking charge of mental wellness by exploring a new relationship to ourselves.
Words by Jennifer Hannibal
Images by John Hersey
What’s your impulse when you hear the word mindfulness? Do you recoil a little or perhaps your ears prick up with interest? The ‘m’ word sure has some buzz about it; every man and his dog leaping on the bandwagon to prey on the poor word and suck it dry of any integrity it once had.
Caught in the crossfire between me and myself, my mind, like a puppy, has run off with the ball and is so far out of sight that recall isn’t even an option. My only ammunition a whistle attached to my keys; I blow with hope that she [said puppy] chooses to listen. She doesn’t the first few times, but with some practice she starts to come back. Over time, it gets easier and easier and soon she comes with just the sound of my keys being pulled from my sandy pocket.
Throw the mind a ball and it will happily run off with purpose but, when the time comes to relinquish the ball, it’s not quite so willing. Our attention, like the puppy, must be trained; we cannot expect a puppy to know how to behave. In a world that rewards distraction and multitasking it’s not surprising we are living in a mental health crisis, not to mention how the current social restrictions have added weight. Mindfulness-based meditation is a formal training of attention that can enable us to switch from the busyness-of-doing mode into the nourishment-of-being mode appropriately, rather than being stuck in frantic mode having to rely on sleeping apps, alcohol, drugs or medication.
Have you ever been driving your car and all of a sudden, snap, you wake up from some dream land where you still managed to safely drive your car with no recollection of how? Welcome to autopilot. I’m not here to demonise our finely evolved autopilot that permits us to function magnificently as humans however, I am here to tell it to back off! Our incredible physiology is so intelligent that it allows us to fully function without having to be aware of all of our processes at once. How do you regulate your blood pressure? The oxygen in your blood? Your heart beat? The answer is, you don’t. The body does it for you, amongst so many other wonderful things. However, sometimes our autopilot can get a little greedy and start messing with our mental processes; queue anxiety, insomnia, depression and the like.
So, how do we take the power back from our modern world, AI-type brains and keep autopilot in check? You guessed it; the ‘m’ word.
Let’s start by fighting back at a world based in instant gratification by strengthening our focus. The puppy mind loves to get wrapped up in chasing our thoughts off into the distance, but have you ever spent time watching this happen? A common misconception of meditation is to ‘empty our minds’, when actually in mindfulness-based meditation, we spend time acknowledging where the mind has gone and choosing not to get involved. So, mind wandering is actually a part of the meditation. This is the golden moment where we can strengthen our focus by choosing to escort the mind back to the body and the breath which reside in the present moment.
Present moment awareness is an elusive little minx that quite often slips us by if we don’t actively pay it any attention. We get present moment brownie points by retrieving our attention from either worrying about the future or dwelling in the past. Where is your mind now? Is it reading this article? Or half thinking about lunch or work? Being fully in the moment isn’t something that comes naturally, not to most anyway, and so certainly is not easy.
Traditionally meditators are thought of as sitting for hours on end in what seems like torturous positions, but, more progressively now, you can choose to meditate in whatever position is right for you. In modern times, we are now sitting on evidence-based tools and techniques that are universal in application to allow everyone access to cultivating awareness; no religion required.
The liberation of the present moment is available to all, as mindfulness has no interest in what faith you follow but only wishes to convert you to contentedness. The breath and the body always reside in the present moment and so are used as an anchor for our wandering minds to seek refuge from our imaginary concerns. No gods, deity, charms or chants; a form of self-care that can be blended with any tradition and flow alongside our ambitions, keeping us steady.
As we spend more time in the present it starts to become apparent that the present moment is all we truly have, and that life is just an accumulation of these moments. If we do our best in this moment, perhaps all the other moments will take care of themselves.
What is mindfulness? Perhaps the question should be: where is mindfulness? It can be found in any ordinary activity. Being mindful doesn’t have to be some grand picturesque gesture of sitting cross-legged under a peach tree but instead, whatever activity you choose to bring your mindful attention to. Washing the dishes, drinking a cup of tea, brushing your teeth. Be fully present with the physical sensations in your body, use all of your senses to track the activity you are doing as it shows up in the body; wash the dishes to actually wash the dishes, rather than thinking about dessert or what’s on Netflix.
Bringing our mindful attention to any ordinary activity brings it to life again. We wake up from the autopilot of our wandering mind and become engrossed in what we are actually doing in the present. Not only do we start to find pleasure in simplicity but also develop a grander understanding of our inner nature. We notice more, feel more and in turn understand ourselves more; leading to an authentic baseline from which we can choose how to proceed. Mindfulness makes choice a conscious activity, whether that is choosing our breakfast or our life partner. From choice comes freedom and from freedom comes potential; your infinite potential to slip into your most authentic skin, which is ready and waiting to be embraced.
Don’t take my word for it though! Try it for yourself, then try it again, and again and again. Play with it, don’t take it too seriously. Laugh at yourself, cry with yourself, whatever you’re feeling, know that there is no right or wrong way to feel; it’s all part of being gloriously human. Mindfulness gives us a technique to develop an awareness that can help us to hold all the weather of our lives; to acknowledge the pain, fear, worry, joy, hope, gratitude, and whatever else you may be feeling in this moment, and then rest in the knowledge that it is only temporary, it too will pass. Mindfulness teaches us a way of lessening our craving for pleasant things and our aversion to unpleasant things. It teaches us to become comfortable with the uncomfortable. To be able to consciously ride the waves of our lives, through the peaks and the troughs.
So, what is mindfulness, you ask? Mindfulness is not a spiritual practice but instead an invitation to fall awake to life, moment by moment; a practical approach to living life consciously.
Jen teaches Mental Hygiene privately and corporately. Follow Jen @mentalhygiene.jen or enquire through mentalhygiene.co.uk.