I asked my eldest daughter whether she would like me to tell her how to become smarter, more confident, healthier, achieve greater focus and improved academic results – using one simple trick. She eagerly nodded and waited for me to impart the “secret”… Mindfulness meditation.
In that moment the simplicity dilemma kicked in and she responded with a rather dull, “Oh.” By listing all the wonderful benefits of mindfulness practice, she had subconsciously assumed that the technique I was going to share with her, would be complicated, sacred and ever so slightly magical. The one thing mindfulness practice is not, is complicated. Sacred and magical? Well, that depends entirely on you.
So, what is mindfulness actually?
Mindfulness can refer to either a personal trait, or a practice. With regular practice, the trait develops naturally, so let’s just start by taking a closer look at mindfulness practice.
During mindfulness practice, you non-judgmentally focus on the present moment. Because we are human, our minds tend to wander – this is where the “non-judgmentally” part comes in. When your mind wanders during mindfulness practice, you notice what has happened, and then gently let go of the wandering thought and return to your chosen focus.
So what is it you focus on? You can choose to focus on anything specific to the moment. Options include:
- Your breathing
- Your body
- Your senses (such as hearing, sight, smell and taste)
- An object, such as a candle, pebble or image
- Text (a spiritual or thought-provoking quote)
- * A visualisation (a “safe space”, walk through a forest, or other calming scene)
- * Things you are grateful for
- * Feelings of loving kindness towards yourself and/or others
- * A reflection on what went well during that day
* These may veer more towards general meditation rather than mindfulness, though the same benefits remain.
Do stereotypes have to apply?
When I recently introduced 10 to 11-year old children to mindfulness meditation, I asked the various groups what they thought of when I used the words. As predicted, the more outspoken and confident of the group promptly crossed their legs, pinched their index fingers and thumbs together, and even went for an exaggerated, “Ooommmmm…”, followed by some giggles.
This is the image we almost automatically return to when we hear “mindfulness” or “meditation”, and I feel a little sad that this is the case. Yes, mindfulness and meditation have their origins in religion, but it has, for quite some time now, been secularised and adopted by many, not as a spiritual practice, but as a means to train the brain, much as we train our bodies. Advances in medicine, education, technology and, more specifically, neuro-imaging, means that we are no longer guessing about the benefits of mindfulness practice. We can see the increased density in grey matter in the brain, in people who are long-term mindfulness practitioners. We have seen how genetic illnesses progress more slowly and improve the quality of life in those who have higher trait-mindfulness. If you are uncertain about the benefits, please have a look at my previous post, What is NOT a benefit of mindfulness.
Thinking about mindfulness practice in terms of the spiritual stereotype is regrettable, because it creates a stigma, or a sense of “not for me” in certain groups. It creates a discomfort and unease for those who would like to benefit, but not associate with the spiritual origins.
The good news is …
You can use mindfulness meditation in a way that suits you – and because the practice is so diverse and flexible, it really is for everyone! Below are a few suggestions on how you may wish to incorporate mindfulness practice into your life:
- Go for a mindful walk (use your senses to stay in the moment as you enjoy your walk).
- Have a mindful commute. Provided you’re not the one driving, pay attention to sights, smells, sounds and sensations as you commute to your destination.
- Have a mindful cup of coffee or tea when you wake up in the morning, paying careful attention to all the sensations that go with your morning cuppa (warmth, aroma, steam).
- Do a sweet and short breathing meditation just before you go to sleep. Simply focusing on your (natural) breathing, and letting go of the mind’s wanderings, is a good way to wind down after a busy day.
- Take five minutes when you arrive home from work to transition from work mode, to mom (or dad) mode. During these minutes you choose what to focus on – the goal being to arrive at a sense of calm after the day’s work.
- If you are religious, you may use some of your time in prayer to practise mindfulness. Prayer can be viewed as a form of mindfulness in and of itself.
- If you have a family with young kids, make mindfulness practice a family activity for winding down before bedtime. Parents and kids sit together, with a parent setting a timer on a cellphone for between 1 and 5 minutes, depending on the age and experience of the children. Everyone uses the time to close eyes and listen intently until the timer goes off. Everyone has a turn to name what they heard during those few minutes. This is an excellent and simple way to introduce mindfulness to young children.
- Apps. There are plenty of excellent apps with which to practise mindfulness. My two favourites are Insight Timer (available for free) and Balance (free for the time being as a trial version). I have to add that I have been MOST impressed by Balance as it personalises the meditation experience according to your needs and progress.
Is mindfulness for you? Yes! The trick is to find what works for you. The suggestions above are limited, but your imagination is the only true limit to how you could incorporate this valuable practice into your life and reap the benefits.