Yesterday I spoke about thought 'monsters' or negative thoughts and how they can dominate our thinking, especially if we overly engage with them and become absorbed in them. I mentioned the idea of thought 'defusion' or the process of becoming less engaged with our negative inner voice; allowing it to be there while at the same time focusing most of our attention on other things. I realise that this is much easier said than done, but there is one practice that can be a huge help in achieving greater detachment from our negative thought track, that is the practice of Mindfulness.
Mindfulness has been a big buzz word over the past number of years. Most people have a vague notion of what it is and within the popular perception there has been some misunderstanding of its purpose. At its most basic level, Mindfulness is being aware of the present moment. This is a deceptively simple notion as it sounds like a terribly easy thing to achieve. But try it yourself for a few moments. Try to exist in the present moment without your thoughts dragging you off somewhere else, into a future event, into a past memory, into the details of how you will accomplish the things that need to be done over the next hour, the next day or the next few days. It is incredibly difficult, without concerted effort, to keep your mind focused on the present moment for more than a minute or so.
But what is the purpose of keeping your mind on the present moment anyway I hear you ask. How will this help? Well lets focus on negative thinking for a second. What is the nature of it? When we are worried, anxious or concerned does it ever have anything to do with the here and now? Nine times out ten it does not. Usually we are concerned with something that has already occurred; 'Did I turn the oven off before I left the house?', 'Did I annoy my partner this morning, they seemed distant?'. Or we are focused on a future event; 'Will I do okay at my job interview?', 'How am I going to afford my college fees?'. Even when we are anxious during a present moment event, for example while doing some public speaking, it is not the present moment that is actually causing the anxiety, it is previous experiences that are telling us this is a scary situation, and our fears of how it will pan out, that cause the present moment anxiety. When we can focus our attention on the present, rather than on past ruminations or future worries, anxiety is greatly reduced. There will always be a certain, inevitable, and even healthy amount of anticipation, stress or anxiety in life, this is necessary tension that the body creates to move forward and achieve. However, it is when the anxiety spirals out of control that it becomes a problem. Staying in the present moment helps to keep us grounded and prevents the anxious spiral from escalating.
But with the mind being such as it is, how can we achieve this focus and stay in the present moment? What connects us to the here and now more than anything else, is our senses. Our senses are entirely concerned with what is happening right now, so by focusing attention on the data the senses are giving us, we can connect with the present moment. Consider the general Mindfulness exercise below:
Notice your breathing without trying to change or manage it
When thoughts pop into your head label them as thoughts and bring your attention back to your breathing
Notice your feet touching the soles of your shoes
Notice sounds inside the room
Continually label thoughts as thoughts and bring attention back
Notice sounds outside the room
What is the furthest away sound you can hear
Bring your attention back to the room and what is happening there
In this exercise you can see that the senses come to the fore; the eyes, touch, the ears etc. These all serve to bring us to and keep us in, the present moment.
It would be useful also to point out some of the things that Mindfulness is not, in order to address any common misconceptions:
Mindfulness is not about getting away from thoughts or feelings. It is about acceptance of whatever is occurring in the present moment and dealing with it in the here and now rather than getting caught up in past or future thinking. It is not an escape hatch, it is a coping tool.
Mindfulness is not about spending hours on meditation. A mindfulness practice, like the one above, can take as little as five minutes. In fact, Mindfulness can be applied to any activity, without taking up any extra time in your day. Even a cup of tea can be made Mindfully! Simply focus on the steps involved, pay attention to the sounds of the boiling kettle, notice the texture of your cup etc , use your senses. Mindfulness is more of an attitude than a time consuming activity. There is no such thing as not having the time for Mindfulness.
It is not possible to be in a Mindful state at all times. The mind will naturally shift to thoughts. However, if at any time you wish to move back into present moment awareness use your breathing and your senses to achieve it. At times of heightened anxiety it is an especially useful tool, however it is best to have incorporated it into your life as a practice beforehand so that a Mindful state is more easily achieved when required.
This a brief, but hopefully useful, introduction to the use of mindfulness in everyday life, particularly when dealing with stress and anxiety. If you would like to know more about Mindfulness there are many resources and courses at your disposal. One practitioner, whose resources I would highly recommend, is Padraig O'Morain http://www.padraigomorain.com/ , Padraig offers some very useful free exercises on his website that can easily be incorporated into a busy lifestyle.
If you struggle with anxiety, stress, worry, obsessive or intrusive thoughts, and you feel you need some help coping with these issues, please consult my contact or booking pages to make an appointment today.