The Art of Mindful Living

Meditation isn't the only way to be more zen

Long gone are the days when mere material possessions defined your social standing. These days you also must showcase how mentally and physically thriving you are. Just like the words "wellbeing" and "natural", mindfulness is becoming a yucky buzzword. Captured by wizards of marketing and contorted, diluted and commodified to become the next thing you don't have a clue about (why'd you have to crash the party McMindfulness?!). Worse, perhaps they make you feel like your problems aren't real: they're just in your head. Remind me again how deep breaths and dissociation will pay my mortgage?

The trouble is, no matter how hard the wizards try: you can't sell it. It exists within all of us, and all of us have had glimpses of it without even trying. It doesn't require a wellness retreat, meditating for hours on end or buying stacks of self-help books, though I buy into all of the above. So what is it, and how to we incorporate more of it into our #selfcareroutine?

Photo by Jose Morraja

Be here now

Mindfulness as we know it today was popularised by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who distilled Buddhist wisdom and practices in order to address modern concerns. Tried and tested since the Buddha walked the Earth 2,500 years ago, renouncing a life of luxury and suffering for mindfulness and freedom. Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally. There is no defined tool or trick, no meditation script, no transcendental state. Just you and your attention.

Quiet the mind and the soul will speak. - Gautama Buddha

So many thoughts, so little help

The mind loves to live in the past and the future, which has helped us from an evolutionary perspective, but it causes us all manner of grief in the modern world. Supposedly, 80% of the average person's thoughts are negative and 95% are repetitive, which sounds just like the pessimistic extrovert I distance myself from on trains. Mindfulness is learning to disidentify from the stream of thinking that keeps you in the world of form (possessions, abilities, ascetics) and experience essence (consciousness, or "true self"). It isn't about thinking less. It's about not entangling ourselves in thoughts that arise, which leads us to water the weeds of our minds.

Unease, anxiety, tension, stress, worry — all forms of fear — are caused by too much future, and not enough presence. Guilt, regret, resentment, grievances, sadness, bitterness, and all forms of non-forgiveness are caused by too much past, and not enough presence. - Eckhart Tolle

So how do we get a slice of this present moment™, without denouncing all our belongings and retreating off to live in the forest?

Pour yourself into every act

Remove distractions that compete for your attention so that you can become one-pointed with whatever you're doing: working, relaxing, creating. Bring your complete awareness to what you're doing and commit your full self. If it's a difficult task, show up all the same: observe the inner resistance as it tries to control you and see if you can chip away at it anyway. Watch Netflix and actually watch it. Give it your time and attention, rather than allow your mind to berate you for all the more wholesome and productive things you should be doing instead. Wherever you are, be there completely (sensations, sounds, sights) and notice how much more enjoyable, or less stressful, activities can be.

Find your flow state

When people say they don't know how to reach a meditative state, they don't realise they've already been there. Being "in the zone" or in a "state of flow" is just it. Your attention is completely absorbed in what you are doing. You're not thinking; you're experiencing. You know what to do without an internal dialogue bossing you around. Where have you had this before? What hobby or activity or inactivity takes away your sense of time as you immerse yourself in it? For me, it's wild swimming. When I'm in the water nothing else exists beyond the sensation of the water, the sights, the sounds. Flow state IS mindfulness.

Concentration is a fine antidote to anxiety. Jack Nicklaus

Pick up a mindfulness practice

Directing present moment awareness can be found in Daoist, Buddhist, Jain, Hindu, Christian, Islamic and Jewish teachings. Practices that spiral from these roots such as meditation, yoga, breath-work, martial arts and prayer cultivate mindfulness. Of course you would say yoga. Yep, I would, because it has worked for me, and mindfulness is just one of several reasons to practice it. When talking about yoga here I don't mean shapes or asanas, I'm talking about the yogic approach: sensing the body and the breath to draw away from form and into essence. Despite having traditional roots, mindfulness doesn't require religion or spirituality. Sit with your thoughts: the good, the bad and the ugly and you're practicing a mindful meditation, but you can call it whatever you like.

Try this simple breath meditation

Close your eyes. Follow your breath as you inhale and exhale, without changing it. Feel the sensations of the breath: the cool air flowing in, warm air flowing out. Count to 10 breaths. Come back to the sensations and the count as your mind pulls away. Don't get attached to thinking about the breath. Feel it. For 10 breaths: don't let your mind cut it short.

Do you feel calmer, even just for a moment?

Do less and rest

There's a reason that millennials have become the burnout generation, beyond being 'snowflakes'. We live in the age of information overload and 24/7 availability. Boundaries are more important than ever. Carve out time and stop trying to solve, to fix, to do. Do less and your overwhelmed mind will follow. Find slow, quiet activities. Be unproductive, inactive. Connect with nature and art. Go to places free from distraction or responsibility. Be alone. Unplug from social media and do things just for you, not for the gram. Let mental tension and busyness slowly slip away, opening up space in your mind to be mindful.

Mindfulness is not another task for you to get done

A common reason mindfulness practices fail to work is because they become another thing to do, to achieve, to master. Checked off a 10 minute meditation, but spent the whole time thinking about the week Matt Hancock is having? This misses the point. The more you seek it as something to be achieved, to do, the further it will fade, because once again you are letting the mind rule the show. Of course the mind will resist this, you have SO many other better things to do. It takes sustained, dedicated effort, hence why so many people give up (as I have on many occasions, as my monkey mind hounds me for not doing more STUFF with my precious TIME).

Mindfulness is not going to solve your problems. It can't fix you. It's not a replacement for seeking help and guidance from friends, families and professionals. Mindfulness won't pay your mortgage, but nor will a nuclear meltdown of the mind. I sit every day to be mindful, and what I notice is a stilling of the sediment of the mind, The thoughts still come, but there's less incessant blathering, they're more meaningful, more creative, more relevant, and ultimately more helpful. This doesn't need to be how you practice mindfulness, it's a tool that can be used in a variety of settings. Find what setting works for you, stick to it, and watch as it improves your experiences.

Ready to build a mindful practice? Join me for Restorative Yoga every Tuesday evening at the Yoga Loft in Whitley Bay. Find out more about my in-studio classes, or for private workshops across the North East and online, get in touch.

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