Every Breath Counts by Nicky Morgan
“Mindfulness” as a practice came onto my radar in the mid-noughties. My mum cut an article out of a magazine for me to read – (so safe to say this “mindfulness” thing was going mainstream) – as she thought it could be helpful for me. Mindfulness was apparently a useful tool to help manage anxiety – something I had been a slave to for a while.
I went on an 8 week course which started with me staring at a raisin…and ended in a day of silence. For those of you who have been on the course – you’ll know what I’m talking about. For those of you who haven’t, (and who might be tempted to switch off at this point), I was you! So I’ll appeal to your sense of curiosity and urge you to read on…
A definition of mindfulness I like is from Jon Kabat-Zinn – AKA the “godfather” of mindfulness. He says:
“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
Very simply, when we are fully in the present moment, being mindful, it is impossible to be fretting about what’s gone before or worrying about what’s to come. With that comes a lot of freedom. Especially for those of us with chatty, over-active minds.
The 8 week course made a lot of sense to me and taught me a lot. But for the usual reasons of a “busy life” my practice back then didn’t stick in a way that I wish it had.
And so over a decade later, I now find myself a passionate teacher as well as a curious student of mindfulness. I’ve got to this place after many years of living with – in the words of Arianna Huffington – the “obnoxious roommate” in my head. My default mode for dealing with my roommate was by keeping busy – a sure way to keep it at arm’s length.
But as I’ve discovered, “busy” isn’t necessarily “best” for me. No regrets – I wouldn’t be where I am now without where I was then. But if it could, what would 2019 me say to 2007 me about this whole mindfulness thing?
- Well, first up, there are now studies via MRI scans that show that after an 8 week course of mindfulness practice the amydgala, (the part of the brain responsible for triggering the “fight or flight” response), appears to shrink. At the same time, the pre-frontal cortex – associated with things like awareness, focus and decision-making – becomes thicker. The more you work out at the gym – the stronger your muscles grow. The more you practice mindfulness the stronger your brain gets. A fact of science!
- Also, you don’t, as you may think, have to ring fence 20 minutes+ a day for this to stick. Actually, as little as 60 seconds a day of deliberate, mindful breathing can be enough to help move us out of the “fight or flight” state to the opposing state of “rest and digest”. You’re a busy person – set yourself a mindfulness goal that’s achievable – even if that’s 1 minute a day. I can almost guarantee you’ll start building this up once you start to notice the benefits.
- And on the subject of benefits. This isn’t like going on a diet or hitting the gym hard. You won’t see any obvious signs of improvement (unless you happen to have access to an MRI scan)… and this can make a practice feel pointless and de-motivating. BUT, there’ll come a time when you “respond” to a situation in a different way to how you would normally “react” to it – and it will make you feel good. This will be a lightbulb moment. And when it comes, really stop to appreciate that moment. A regular mindfulness practice can bring with it the gift of a pause button… and the awareness to choose how we “respond” rather than “react” to things that cross our path. Trust me, this is a game-changer.
- Oh, but PS: this doesn’t mean you’ll always choose a response you’re pleased with and you won’t suddenly turn into an enlightened person. Mindfulness is about being aware – when you get it right… and not so right. Awareness is the practice. We will forever be a work in progress, and that’s OK!
- You don’t have to cultivate any sort of monkish behaviour in order to be mindful. In fact, you don’t even need to sit still and be quiet (although this works for me!). You can practice mindfulness anytime, anywhere, and with anyone by showing up and being fully engaged in the here and now. Whether that’s preparing a meal, having a conversation, taking a walk, drinking a cup of tea, creating some art or doing a jigsaw. If you’re “paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally” – you’re being mindful.
- Know that the thoughts will always be there. During your practice you’ll often feel fidgety. It will feel like a chore. You’ll often become impatient and think it’s a waste of time. If I had a £ for every time someone said to me / I said to myself “I’ve tried but I can’t do mindfulness – my mind is too active and I can’t keep still for long enough.” I’d be mindlessly rich. The practice is in noticing all these things – and sticking with it.
- If you’re ever feeling bored, frustrated or reluctant with your practice tap into 10% Happier. It is a great app designed for the “fidgety sceptic” – it’s lighthearted, humourous and takes the intensity out of this stuff.
- You’ll likely slip off the mindful practice bandwagon plenty of times… ironically, I’ve found this often occurs when I actually need it most – i.e. when I’m busy, stressed or going through an emotionally-charged situation. Don’t beat yourself up, do gently get yourself back on track.
- There are times when you wish you weren’t so aware. You’ll begin to notice a lot of previously hidden thoughts and feelings that aren’t always comfortable. Remain curious. Remember you aren’t your thoughts and learning to be comfortable being uncomfortable is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself – both to support your mental as well as your physical wellbeing.
- Know that finding the moments of peace, of stillness, of non-judgement are truly priceless. And a portal to a whole new way of life.
- Oh, and there’s evidence to prove that a regular mindfulness practice can slow down aging on a cellular level. It is good for wrinkles. Need I say more?
Mindfulness is a proven way to support our overall health and wellbeing. At POINT3 we put it up there as a priority with other wellbeing hygiene factors including sleep, nutrition and movement. And the great news is it’s a free resource we have at our disposal every moment of every day to help bring ourselves into the current moment and out of our spiralling thoughts of the past or the future.
To end with some further words from Jon Kabat-Zinn:
“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn how to surf.”
Enjoy the ride!
For Part 1 of the Move More Mindfully series, click here.