Becoming more Mindful
Our Mindfulness Series
‘Becoming more Mindful‘ is the fourth article in our mindful series.
We recommend you read our Mindfulness series systematically to progressively deepen your Mindfulness practise and understanding, beginning with our first article – ‘What is Mindfulness‘.
Mindfulness often entails acute sensory awareness of what is happening in the present moment. When we are mindful, we fully engage our senses in a very direct way. That is, we simply observe our senses without mental commentary such as labelling, judging or interpreting based on prior experience. Although this may sound a little cryptic, it’s actually incredibly simple (but not initially habitual).
Sometimes, this is referred to as a beginners mind. Imagine you have only just come into existence right now. You have no prior knowledge or experience of anything and you’re only just using your senses for the first time (for example seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling and tasting). Explore your senses with curiosity, paying attention to detail.
Here are a few examples that you can try (for as little as 30 seconds each):
- When taking a breath, fully feel the air coming into the lungs, the short pause and the air easily leaving your lungs before you feel the need to breathe again. Observe a few breaths.
- Look at any mundane object with curiosity, such as a pen, or your hand, notice the colours, textures, shapes, brightness and all of the other intricate details as though you’re looking for the very first time. Try to see and take in the details without mental commentary or labelling.
- Pick up an object and feel the weight, texture, pressure and temperature of the object. Become acutely aware of what you can feel. Explore with curiosity.
- Listen to any sounds you can hear. Become highly alert and open to what is already being heard. Listen to near and far sounds, observing directly and without effort.
- When walking, walk slowly and feel each part of your foot coming into contact with and leaving the ground. Feel the changing pressure and movement at each part of your feet.
Creating Lasting Changes
Research has shown that the brain is plastic and capable of physical changes in response to practise and experience. Like a muscle, the more we use our brains in a particular way, the more we strengthen neural pathways improving our ability to perform the activities we practise.
The more we practise being mindful, the more we strengthen these neural pathways and the more automatic this becomes. In addition, the less time we spend in ‘Default Mode’ (i.e. ‘lost in thought’), the more the associated neural pathways are eroded (due to the use it or lose it nature of our brain). Mindfulness practise physically rewires our brains.
Intellectual Understanding vs. Practise
Of course, if we wish to maintain the wonderful benefits of mindfulness, we need to continue to practise (and ideally integrate this into our everyday life). Intellectual understanding of mindfulness is not enough. We may be intelligent and understand all the benefits of mindfulness including in-depth knowledge of how to practise, however, if we do not practise, we will not receive any of the mindfulness benefits. Without exercise and practise, our mindful muscles will shrink in size. This will allow ‘Default Mode’ to once again become our most prominent setting.
Formal Practise – What to Expect
Mindfulness can be practised both formally (i.e. during designated mindfulness periods, for example sitting on a cushion or chair) or informally (i.e. during our moment to moment experience of everyday life).
Before commencing formal practise, there are some important points to be aware of:
- Mindfulness is a skill that gradually improves over time with ongoing practise.
- The quality of each mindful period can vary (like the weather).
- Sometimes your state of mind may feel peaceful and calm (like the clear blue sky on a beautiful day) and your experience may be gratifying.
- Other times you may feel unsettled, agitated and have a very active mind (as though you’re in the midst of a hurricane).
- Both gratifying and ungratifying experiences are equally important for strengthening your mindful muscles.
- Simply observing and allowing however you feel to be as it is, is an essential part of the practise.
- There’s no need to force a particular experience, resist what you are feeling or thinking, or, try to change anything.
- Hold out the welcome mat for any experience or feeling even if you’d normally label them as ‘negative’ such as any unhappiness within you.
What if I can’t stop thinking?
- When you get lost in thought during practise (which is completely normal), simply become aware of your thought, then gently bring your attention back to the mindfulness exercise.
- Guided mindfulness exercises, such as those on apps like Smiling Mind, Headspace or 1 Giant Mind, are great for beginners (or experience practitioners – particularly when you’re feeling a little unsettled). They’re a useful reminder to come back to the present moment (when you become distracted or lost in thought).
- This coming back again and again to the present moment is the essence of mindfulness practise.
- Don’t try to get rid of thoughts, or judge the frequency with which they occur, simply sit back, allow and observe.
- Over time, your ability to stay in the present moment and recognise when you are ‘lost in thought’ occurs more easily and quickly (although, like the weather or share market, this will fluctuate).
- You are then able to bring yourself back to the present moment more easily, you begin to feel more at peace within yourself and with the world around you. You experience more harmonious relationships and life begins to flow with ease.
Life – The Most Important Mindfulness Exercise
The ultimate goal of mindfulness practise is to incorporate it into your moment to moment experience of everyday life. This is where the most healing and transformation is possible. Begin by inviting mindfulness into mundane activities like:
- having a shower
- walking into a room
- washing your hands
- eating a meal
- listening to someone
- using a computer or other electronic device (such as right now)
Keep an openness to the present moment, an inner ‘YES’, rather than the habitual ‘NO’. This allows you to feel joyfully alive, alert and at peace in every moment. Here you can reap the widespread health benefits of the practise.
Mindful living, allows you to get in touch with the only thing there ever is – the present moment. It heals the separation of mind and body creating a oneness, where both your mind and your body can dwell peacefully in the present moment (rather than the usual split caused by your mind wandering away into thoughts about the future or past). Here, in the now, you can enjoy the many wonders that are always available when we pay full attention to each moment of our life.
Extending the benefits
Some mindfulness practitioners are wonderful at cultivating a mindful state during formal practise. However, as soon as the practice period ends (and they leave their pillow), they immediately fall back into ‘Default Mode’ and become once again, lost in thought.
In these situations, the benefits of mindfulness may only be realised during the formal practise periods (i.e. perhaps lasting 5 – 30 minutes). Integrating mindfulness into everyday life markedly extends the health and well-being benefits. This is arguably the most vital aspect of mindfulness practise.
After any period of formal practise, try to bring mindfulness into your next activity and remember to keep coming back to the present moment at various times in the day. Mindfulness mnemonics in the form of phone alarms, post-it-note reminders or taking a few conscious breaths every hour can serve as useful reminders to help strengthen your mindful muscles.
A good question to ask yourself at regular intervals is ‘Do I feel at peace in this moment?’ If the answer is no, you’ve re-entered ‘default mode – lost in thought’ and your attention has once again been taken over by your mind. This is, of course, completely normal.
Don’t turn this into a personal problem. Don’t judge or criticise your thoughts (after all this would be more ‘Default Mode’ thinking). Just use it as a useful reminder to become more mindful in this moment. Bring your attention back to the present and say an inner unconditional ‘YES’ to what is (letting go of any internal resistance to what has already unfolded).
Use your level of inner peace as a mindfulness monitor to determine the effectiveness of your practise in each moment.
What Problem Exists Now?
Another useful question to ask yourself is ‘What problem exists right now (if I’m not thinking)?’
Become highly alert and focus your attention on this exact moment, that is, right now. Make sure your focus is not on the past ( i.e a few moments, hours, days or years ago) or the near or distant future. Explore this moment yourself and find out how many of your problems are actually created by your thinking (and not reality i.e. this moment).
Learn More About Mindfulness
PhysioAdvisor’s mindfulness articles are a progressive series designed to gradually strengthen your Mindful muscles. We recommend progressively reading through our series to deepen your practise.
View the next article in our series:
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