We live in such difficult times that being anxious about the future is inevitable. Can we remove such anxiety from our minds entirely, or can we cope with such fear? I would think it is the latter. And in this respect, 'mindfulness' is an essential tool.
I was introduced to the concept of ‘mindfulness’ by my therapist. What is mindfulness? Is it the same as meditation?
In this post, I take you through the fundamentals of mindfulness, how I practice mindfulness, how it has helped me, and a few tips for cultivating the practice.
What is Mindfulness?
According to Shamash Aldina, author of ‘Mindfulness for Dummies,' "Mindfulness means paying attention on purpose in the present moment, with qualities like compassion, curiosity and acceptance.” Let me explain the various elements mentioned in the definition above.
(i) Being aware or paying attention to your present – To help me understand this concept, my therapist asked me to focus on one of the five senses every week. For instance, if the focus was on sight, I took five to ten minutes out every day and closely observed an object or a scene. While observing, I was required to focus on the shape, colours, patterns, etc. I have observed something as simple as a TV remote to a view from the balcony. If the sense to focus upon was taste, I paid attention to the minute particles of the food I ate and how it felt in my mouth. Similarly, for touch and hearing, it was what I felt, and how the sounds vibrated, respectively.
In addition to the senses, I focused on my breathing, i.e., the inhalation and exhalation of the breathing. Let me be honest, it was not at all easy to focus on only one sense at a time. I found sound and taste to be easier than the others. I was getting very distracted in the case of other senses.
(ii) Paying attention in the present moment with ‘compassion, curiosity, and acceptance. Each of these words contributes to the effectiveness of mindfulness uniquely and, in some ways, are interlinked.
Compassion - When you approach your present moment with compassion, then you are not critical of yourself, and will be kind to yourself.
Curiosity - Understanding 'curiosity' in the context of mindfulness has been challenging for me. The theoretical explanation is that you observe your experiences to learn more. However, I have not been able to implement it entirely.
Acceptance - The last one is acceptance, and this has been the easiest one for me. In mindfulness, acceptance means acknowledging your present moment’s experience. Acceptance means approaching a situation in a non-judgmental manner.
How do I practice Mindfulness?
When you are doing your daily activities, be it working, cooking, praying, watering a plant, or driving, you need to stay in the present and be aware. Further, approach that awareness without being too hard on yourself and with an open mind. Honestly, I have not been able to do this entirely. Practising mindfulness by taking time out to focus on one sense (as part of my therapy exercise) was not so difficult. However, implementing mindfulness practices in your everyday life is challenging but not impossible.
What my therapist suggested was to focus on the sense that is relevant to the activity you are doing. For instance, if you are reading, then the focus should be entirely on the sight and nothing else. Similarly, when you are eating, the focus should be on your taste. Next, if you are washing dishes, the focus should be on the touch. Further, while focusing on these activities, one needs to be non-judgmental and kind to themselves.
While doing my daily activities, I am aware that I need to bring my mind to the present, though I struggle to do it. Nonetheless, I am not too hard on myself and appreciate that I am aware of my thoughts. This awareness has helped me a lot. I discuss it below.
Mindful breathing meditation - An alternative to practicing mindfulness in your daily life is mindful breathing meditation. I have been doing it almost daily for a year. After my prayers, I sit in my pooja room with my eyes closed and focus on my breathing for 7 (seven) minutes. I started this practice through a guided meditation. Slowly, I got the confidence to do this without any aid. Initially, I was only able to focus for a few minutes. However, now I have been able to pay attention to my breathing for almost 70% of the time. So, during those 7 minutes, I do get a myriad of thoughts. The important part is to be aware of those thoughts and let the thoughts pass. You don't have to engage with those thoughts; instead, try to come back and focus on the breathing. Also, you don’t have to change the pattern of your breathing, and only focus on the inhalation and exhalation.
The time allotted for the breathing meditation varies for different people. I know some people who can do this for half-hour. The important thing is to take time and do it for at least three minutes. I would say start with this and slowly increase your time.
Mindfulness v. Meditation – Mindfulness supports meditation. Mindfulness can be practised along with your daily activities, any time of the day, while meditation is for a specific period. In my case, I am doing a combination of both; I use the help of mindful breathing to meditate.
In my experience, it is good if you at least follow the mindful breathing meditation. As I said earlier, practising mindfulness in my daily activities has not been easy for me, but it is the ideal situation. If you want to learn about how to imbibe mindfulness in your everyday life, I would recommend 'Mindfulness for Dummies' by Shamash Aldina.
How has Mindfulness Helped Me?
Deal with Anxiety – Mindful breathing meditation has helped me a lot to deal with anxiety. Please note that mindful breathing does not help repress anxiety. It helps you know that you are having an unpleasant experience in your body and mind, and acknowledge it. When one is having anxious thoughts, one should not try to fight them; instead, focus on breathing, let the thoughts flow, and observe the thoughts dispassionately.
To cope with anxiety using mindful breathing, you must practice mindful breathing every day. This is because, during anxiety, you need practice to develop that sense of control and bring attention to your breathing. The guided meditation tools can first achieve this attention to your breathing.
I had a long spell of anxiety last year. There have been times when I was amidst guests at home and suddenly felt anxious. I have excused myself in such scenarios and used a guided meditation tool (like Headspace) to help me calm myself. After repeatedly using the guided tools, you will be able to do mindful breathing yourself and cope with anxiety better.
Awareness of Thoughts - At the cost of repetition, 'awareness of your present' is the crucial element of mindfulness. How is this awareness helping someone like me who has a mood disorder? Let it be a manic episode (high) or a depression (low); your thoughts are the villain. While you get sucked into a high or low, your thoughts overpower you. Therefore, you need to stop it. This can only be achieved if you know the surge or the dip in your thoughts.
Mindful breathing meditation has helped me be aware of my thoughts. This awareness has helped me identify how the thoughts influence me. For instance, recently, I was going through some medical procedures and was having some mood swings. However, these mood swings were slowly escalating, and I felt a slight restlessness within me. So, I asked my husband and friends who were visiting me to spend some more time with me to take my mind away from the restlessness. The best part is that they don’t even know about this, and I handled it internally. This is because of the awareness of my thoughts that I developed as a result of practicing mindfulness.
Does this mean that this awareness of thoughts is only helpful for someone with a mental illness? Being aware of your thoughts and being in the present will definitely help someone to enjoy their present experience fully without being overburdened by the past or future. This will help them be in the present and not let the mind wander. Believe me, that sense of awareness is very empowering.
How to develop the practice of Mindfulness?
(i) Take five to ten minutes out every day, practice mindful breathing, or focus on one of the senses. Do this as a dedicated exercise.
(ii) Practice mindful breathing at the same time and in the same place. As I said before, I usually do it in my pooja room every day, and the timings are also kind of regular. You could put reminders on your computer, phone, or refrigerator.
Please note that this article is just the tip of the iceberg on mindfulness. The practice and philosophy are way more profound. However, I wanted to share what I learned about mindfulness from my readings and therapy and how it has helped me. To learn more about mindfulness, you could read: (i) 'Mindfulness for Dummies,' by Shamash Aldina; and (ii) 'Living with Your Heart Wide Open’ by Bobby Stahl and Steve Flowers.