With the world having been in a state of perpetual chaos for quite some time, it makes sense that we worry more and more. COVID sweeping in and creating a new normal means that big chunks of our lives that felt stable now feel that little bit more unsteady. And don’t get me wrong, thinking ahead can be a brilliant thing, it can keep us safe and help us hit the ground running more often than not.
Yet no amount of preparation could've prepared us for how much life has changed in such a short amount of time, which goes to show that not everything can be anticipated. With all this rushing around we rarely take the time for ourselves that we deserve. The aim of this guide is to provide some methods of mindfulness to help us stay in the moment, and really check in with ourselves at a time when we could all do with a bit of self-assurance.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is generally defined as actively being aware of our individual experience in the current moment without reacting to it. Paying attention to how we feel in a given moment without leaning into the urge to try and change things. There’s a great deal more that goes into this process, but the heart of mindfulness lies in your ability to really exist in the present moment and just accept what you see for what it is.
What are the Benefits?
Research has also found that practicing mindfulness can help to improve interpersonal relationships and increase emotional intelligence. Many of the core teachings of mindfulness encourage us to be as empathetic and generous as we can. When we are kind to others, we open the space for those around us to do the same.
Mindfulness can help to deepen our sense of emotional connection to ourselves and others. It can help manage feelings of depression and anxiety, as well as helping to alleviate chronic pain. It can also help us to work through difficult thoughts and feelings in a more grounded way. Mind-wandering is completely normal, but in some situations, it can do more harm than good. In emotionally charged environments many people either ruminate over past mistakes or catastrophise when they think about the future. It can get to the point that you start to feel like a passenger in your own life, swept away in the current. Practicing mindfulness can be a great step to start practicing active emotional self-regulation, hopefully making it easier to get that sense of control back.
The Key Pillars of Mindfulness
Here we will take a step-by-step look into the fundamentals of mindfulness, the values of each key area, and how we can harness them into our everyday lives. An important point to remember here is that many of these steps seem simple in theory but can be a little tougher when we put them into practice. Be patient! Some of these steps mean moving away from our usual habits, many of which we have relied on our entire lives. If you ever feel stuck, this guide can help to remind you of the steps to take until you’ve nailed it.
The idea here is to go into each moment as though you have never seen it before. Whenever we approach a situation, we subconsciously shape our way of thinking according to our usual biases. By approaching life as though it’s an entirely new process, you can bring fresh ideas to the table. This may take some practice since we have spent every moment of our lives passively collecting information to try and be as prepared as we can. It takes an active effort on our part to put that vast knowledge to one side temporarily and to approach with an entirely new mindset. Zen master Shunryo Suzuki summarised this perfectly when he said:
“In the mind of the expert, there are very few possibilities”.
We are extremely judgmental. If we are quiet and listen to the litany of thoughts that go through our minds almost constantly, the vast majority of these include an opinion or a judgment. This isn’t an accusation, because this is how we all naturally go through life. Being mindful isn’t about removing these judgments, but more about acknowledging those thoughts without necessarily accepting them as true. By doing this, we gradually learn to engage with life without accepting an emotional statement as fact.
One of the ways I learned to manage judgmental thoughts was through what I remember as the orange smarties method- when catch myself thinking something like “I hate what my friend is wearing today”, I remember that it holds about the same amount of significance as saying “I hate orange smarties”- it is a reactive and emotional judgment, but it’s not exactly useful. Being able to weigh up judgments by what is reactive and what is constructive is a great skill to have, and once you start noticing the difference it quickly becomes second nature.
This is another tricky one. When we practice acceptance, we have to make the active decision to see reality as it is, rather than seeing a version of events we like better. We often find ourselves in a version of events that we don’t particularly like, so we might try to reframe events to suit us. If our boss tells us our work isn’t good enough, we may deal with this by thinking “clearly my boss was in a bad mood” or “perhaps they looked over the wrong work by mistake?” This can help salve our feelings, sure, but if we don’t acknowledge reality, it can be hard to move forward. Rather than thinking “My work is great, and they are wrong”, instead think “So my work wasn’t any good, alright. I’ll just do better next time”. As much as events can hurt us, accepting them can help us to adapt and approach future situations with a level head.
Similar in some ways to Acceptance, this takes things that extra step further. The key here is to let things be as they are- don’t try to force a situation to change even if it is less than ideal.
Emotional insight is recognising that you may be attached to aspects of your life working a certain way, but letting go is still being able to step away from the situation entirely. It may sound like an easy thing to do, but it’s a whole different game when there are emotions involved, especially when you know that you could influence the situation. But ultimately, it’s not always up to us to change things, and we have a responsibility to ourselves to be able to leave things alone when they aren’t good for us.
It is a misconception that mindfulness is entirely focused on our minds (which I can understand since the word mind is literally in the term). The reality is quite the opposite, as a big part of mindfulness is learning to place trust in our bodies. We rely on our bodies to provide us with the information necessary to make decisions and trust them to protect and heal us. The body is reliable and complex and so are we. Even at our lowest, our bodies are working hard to keep us alive and healthy. Knowing this can be a good steppingstone to build confidence, if our bodies are working hard to keep us safe then we should give the same consideration. Trust that your heart will beat, and your eyes will see, and you have a good foundation to take in the world around you.
There is rarely a moment when we are not working towards an agenda in some form or another, so the key here is to recognise that some things simply cannot be rushed. By remaining in the present, we stop in our usual movements and just exist. This can be applied to a whole bunch of different areas in life- we are impatient with our friends and family, our work, or ourselves. If we accept that some things are simply out of our hands, we can save ourselves a world of unnecessary grief.
This one can be especially tough to pull off. As stated previously, we are constantly in a state of movement, even when our bodies become still our minds will be whirring with the possibilities of the future and the mistakes of the past. We love to plan and be ready for anything, and why shouldn’t we? With how fast life can move it’s normal to want to be a step ahead. And thankfully this is where this point aligns with our day-to-day. Not striving towards a future agenda doesn’t mean that you won’t take action, but instead you approach the situation with that little rush of purpose that you might have missed in the heat of the moment.
This step is particularly useful to see the ways mindfulness can help change your worldview. Being able to stop means being able to appreciate the world around us. One of the biggest changes that people find is that they feel more grateful for the smaller things in life because they have overlooked them. Having gratitude in the current moment can be fulfilling for many reasons, but ultimately it enriches every day when we so often get lost in routine.
This one is pretty simple. Try to give other people what you think would make them happy because it enhances interconnectedness. By helping others, you show that you have good emotional insight and that you have taken the time to really focus on the people around you. Being able to put someone else’s needs above your own can be hugely beneficial for mental wellbeing, and makes us feel good.
There is a lot to cover here, but one of the best parts of mindfulness is how interconnected the fundamentals are. Once you start being mindful in your everyday life it becomes far easier to appreciate the moment as it happens. Mindfulness is personal, and its purpose is to help you feel the most like yourself as you travel through this hectic world. Even one little step in the right direction can add up when we put our minds to it. Chances are, once you start, the rest will fall into place.
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Shunryu Suzuki (1973), Beginner's Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice, Weatherhill, ISBN 0834800799.