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Mindfulness became a very popular word in the recent years. Mindful eating, mindful relationships, mindful sex, mindful everything!
Another new, trendy nonsense or something worth looking at closer? Let’s first define:
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a very old concept which appeared in all the main world religions. The practice was created and described in 1500 BCE in Hinduism in relation with yoga. In 6th c. BCE it has appeared in Daoism in qì gong – an ancient exercise and in most of the aspects of Buddhism. Mindfulness was also observed in the practice of Christians, Muslims, and Jews.
In the end of XX century, it was promoted in western nations, mostly by Jon Kabat-Zinn, an American professor of medicine and many Zen teachers as a stress reducing technique.
Researchers from Berkley University define mindfulness as ‘maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and the surrounding environment.’
‘paying non-judgmental attention’ to what’s happening in your current life situation and not letting your mind to drift away unless you choose to.
Pretty obvious thing – many would say. But when we think closer, most of us probably would realise that actually in our cluttered world, where ‘being busy‘ or ‘in a rush’ are almost glorified, we are rarely able to really notice and appreciate what’s around and inside us. Our thoughts creating a reality for us, separating us from the beauty of the outside world and our true instincts.
Children have an ability to observe the world with the admiration it deserves. They notice more things, dare to ask big philosophical questions about life and stay in presence, cherish simple things, don’t plan and don’t regret.Little humans often behave like extraterrestrial creatures who just landed on Earth and are having fun observe how it all works here.
When we grow older, most of us at some point stop appreciating our daily activities. We start taking our lives for granted – like there were many more days to come and there was something better to come in the future. Instead of focusing on the unique experiences that occur every single moment of our lives, our minds start producing thoughts which distant as even more of what we could experience.
Compulsive thinking has become a serious condition of the humanity. We plan, we regret, we worry, and we desire some stimulation all the time. We don’t appreciate everyday miracles: that we can breathe, our body can do so many wonderful things, we can enjoy the sun and sky, and there are people who want to spend time with us. We often feel overwhelmed by our own thoughts, which our mind produces like crazy, making us prisoners inside our own heads.
The only way to separate yourself from the noise of your mind and to reconnect with your true self by paying attention. Every single minute. It’s a hard work, which not many masters. I’m definitely far from applying it all the time, but I try my best, because I know how great the benefits are.
Benefits of mindfulness
Thousands of studies have shown wide benefits of mindfulness. It’s been proven that being mindful increase the ability of our immune system to fight illnesses just after two months of practising.What else being mindful can cause to your body?
Staying mindful increases positive emotions and reduces stress at the same time.
Mindfulness has an impact not only on how our brain works but also changes its structure! The density of gray matter of our brains (related to learning, empathy, controlling emotions and memory) increases when we are fully mindful. But what actually is it all about?
How to train staying more conscientious?
Let’s clear it up – meditation doesn’t mean sitting in the lotus pose and thinking about how to stop thinking. Fighting against all the thoughts which are coming to your mind can be a good exercise, indeed, but a true meditation is something way wider.
Meditating means paying your utmost attention to you as a human being. It is switching of thinking and just being. Melting with the air. Sounds maybe a bit lame, but that’s how I feel it.
In Chiang Mai, Thailand I during a meeting with Buddhist monks I asked a teenage monk, “What is meditation?” His reply was, “You’ve just meditated”. This surprised me. Just moments before, I had been listening to his chubby monk friend talk about their lives in the monastery. I knew that the meeting would be short
This surprised me. That’s not what I thought. Just moments before, I had been listening to his chubby monk friend talk about their lives in the monastery. Simply that. I knew that the meeting would be short, and talking to monks was a unique experience for me so I did my best to stay focused on every second of it. I observed the monk and listening what he was saying with my fullest attention.
Apparently, that’s what meditation is.
Meditation can be anything you do with full passion and focus. It can be drawing, ice skating, lying on the grass and looking at the sky, and feeling the fresh air coming in and out of your body, hiking in silence. Whatever you like and able to do with full focus.
Meditating can be started by paying a close attention to your breathing.
Focus on your breathing. No need to change anything, simply bring your awareness to the in and out of your breathing. Feel the rhythm of your chest as it rises and falls, and enjoy the simple act of breathing, as you feel life circulate around your body. Breath slowly, deep and loud. Enjoy it.
My favourite yoga teacher (who I seriously suspect of being capable of reading people’s minds), says that a deep breath is one negative emotion less realeased from our body.
When you feel you have had plenty of rest in the world of eternal peace, come back around to your body, open your eyes if they have been shut, and remain comfortable. Soak in your experience, and remain in the moment, in bliss.
2. Connect with your body
We are the inhabitants of our bodies. We are our bodies. Whatever philosophical approach you choose, the way you treat your body resonates with how we feel – not only physically, but also mentally.
There is a wise saying:
“healthy body, healthy mind”.
Out body is all that we have, and there is no more important thing but taking care of it.
Can you feel the small energy fields which give life to every cell of your body? The more attention you give to your body, the stronger this connection becomes. Running, yoga, walking, and other sports as well as paying attention to what you eat will make you more aware of your body and help you acknowledge its needs.
Enjoy the pleasant sensation simple activities related to your body, such as putting a balm on your feet and gently massaging them. Don’t ignore how your body feels after you eat the certain food, or when you feel stress before certain activities. It’s the way your inner self communicates with you through your body.
Physical experiences can go even further. Experiencing pain or fear oftentimes makes us feel alive even stronger than positive experiences. I believe that’s why so many people get addicted to tattoos or adventure sports. You don’t need to go so far, handling even small amounts of various extreme sensations can be a great way to connect to your body if you pay attention to them. For example, go to a sauna and then jump into a Siberian-temperature pool. Or, simply take a warm bath and finish it with a cold shower.
Is it cold outside? Enjoy it and treat it as a training for your mind – to increase your control over your body. The warm temperature makes you sweat? Treat it as an experience and feel the heat. Enjoy how sweat comes out of your skin, how heat makes you feel like you’re melting. Anything, pleasant or unconfortable sensation related to your body can be an amazingly interesting experience if you choose to treat it this way.
3. Do one thing at a time
How often do you do things that you can’t remember well? Imagine that you took a walk but you can’t remember even one person you’ve passed by. Your mind was maybe 15 minutes ahead, thinking about what’s next: the appointment you’re going to or what you have to do when you get back home. You don’t remember how your breakfast tasted because you were already wondering if there will be a traffic jam today or you checking your phone or reading while eating.
Even though we are often encouraged to multitask, many studies show that it’s not good for us. It decreases our concentration and makes us tired. Try to do one thing at the time, but with full focus.
During the same meeting with the young monks from Chiang Mai I got maybe my best lesson about mindfulness. When I asked for advice on how to be happier one of the monks said someone like this:
“eating, eating, eating”
“talking, talking, talking”
“thinking, thinking, thinking”
Give your full attention to these seemingly simple activities and see what will happen.
4. Use all of your senses
We often forget our five senses – and how awesome they are. Train your focus on tiny things that you would normally ignore. Intentionally engage all of your senses.
Really notice what you’re sensing in a given moment, the sights, sounds, and smells. Here a simple exercise.
Exercise: Go wash your hands and do it as mindfully as you can.
Don’t let any thoughts interrupt your small hand-washing experience. Listen to your steps while walking to the bathroom and feel your body moving. Enjoy the sensation of fresh water on your skin, the nice smell of the soap, and the softness of the towel afterwards. Treat everything as an experience and don’t think about anything else.
You’ll probably have the impression that it took you longer than usual to do this, but it actually took the same amount of time. You just did your regular activity – while staying more mindful. I believe that mindfulness actually gives us the impression that times goes slower, which is priceless.
The next step of mindfulness will be to have a glimpse of a thought about the fact that you actually have access to clean water. Awareness of this will make you feel grateful and happier about your life. Having water is not taken for granted in many parts of the world. Just a short glimpse of gratitude can make you a happier person.
5. Flip your thoughts
Do you know the wonderful book ‘Whatever you think, think the opposite?’. I often remind myself of this title and treat it as an exercise for my mind.
Over time, your brain learns how to behave, and thoughts and feelings become like an inbuilt reaction. On a neurological level, this is exactly what is happening. When you think negatively about something, be it yourself, another person, or a certain situation, you reinforce a certain pathway in your brain.
It is possible, with effort and inspiration, to consciously rewire your brain, and lead your mind gently away from bad thought.
A clever technique for this is to “flip your thought.” It is futile, and unhealthy, to try to pretend that a bad thought never occurred. Instead, you should aim to recognise it, and then lead yourself down a more positive trail of thought soon after.
For example, if you have a bad thought about another person, you can make yourself think of something nice about them. Ask yourself, “what do I like about this person?” You will have to force it at first, but your positivity will eventually solidify. You can do this for any negative thought.
6. Spend more time offline
I recommend using flight mode more often. Try it for a few hours, and I bet you will feel like putting it more often!
Calls, text messages, WhatsApp, Skype, Tinder, email, Pinterest, Facebook notifications – they all scream at you, demanding your immediate attention. Don’t let them control you. To be mindful, you simply have to stop being a slave to your phone.
I always keep my sounds turned off, only using vibration mode or mute totally. It sometimes pisses off my friends, because I rarely pick up my phone, but I prefer to choose when I want to be connected.
7. Behave like an observer
Your thoughts and emotions are fleeting and do not define you, an insight that can free you from negative thought patterns.
The more you’re familiar with the state of absolute presence, the more you can switch it on whenever you want. Observe your internal and external world as if you are somewhat separated from it. Your thoughts and the things that happen to you are not you – don’t let them influence you too much.
Look at your feelings, thoughts, and changing life situations like they are clouds passing in the sky. They are far away, separated from you, and not able to influence your true being. Behaving like a distant observer will make you a more mindful, peaceful, and happy person.
It has been shown time and again to be the key to better living. You must separate yourself from the world around you, your body, and your current life situation. These things provoke your thoughts and feelings.
This may seem obvious to naturally mindful people, but for most of us it’s a skill which can be developed. When you learn to intentionally stay apart from the world around you—behaving like an observer rather than a participant—you will suddenly feel more connected to this world than ever before. This is a very happy feeling.
Photo: Marzena Bielecka, taken in China Town, Kuala Lumpur – Malaysia 2014, Olympus 420 digital.