My experience with Mindfulness

I have been practicing mindfulness for number of years now and recently had the opportunity to do a course for professionals, thanks to the support of my leadership at work. The course gave me a deeper understanding of the psychology behind the practice, having only skimmed the surface of it up to that point and I thought it would be good to share some insights that I have picked up, not just from the course but over the last few years.

Many of these lessons come from YouTube videos, ones that I have watched, repeatedly, to pick out the messages that speak to me and some I have come back to later, finding something different. I’ve linked them throughout this and put some of the things they have thought me, as it applies to this topic. Hopefully you will find a message that speaks to you too.

It’s not easy

This is one of the first things that came up on the course and it resonated deeply with me, so I want to start with this, as should everyone getting into the practice.

Mindfulness is simple but it is not easy!

The idea of mindfulness can be summed up as; being present, in the moment, fully aware of your thoughts and feelings, observing them in a non-judgemental way. Simple, right? Yet many who have tried mindfulness might quickly get turned off it, as they feel they can’t do it properly. While sitting, trying to listen to ourselves, our inner monologue is churning. “You’re not breathing right! You’re not focusing enough! You’re focusing too much! You keep fidgeting! Your stupid brain just won’t shut up.” That’s all ok. Well, except the last one, that’s very judgmental. However fear not, you are not alone. This is the same mental chatter that every person has gone through when starting out and even after years of practice, I still occasionally do the same. The good news is that mindfulness acknowledges that our minds are always busy and the frustration of those things is precisely what the practice is all about.

The way to approach mindfulness is with beginners mind. A difficult enough concept to wrap your head around, though I found a lesson from Jordan Peterson, that put it in more concrete terms for me. In order to master something you must be willing to be a fool. Willing to do it badly. When we are willing to do this, we find out what we are not good at and can correct it, always looking at it with a fresh perspective from our new vantage point.

We may not be comfortable with this, especially where we tend to pick up other things very quickly. However, mindfulness is very different to other skills. It exercises a muscles that many of us may not see as something we can exercise. The mind itself. Without persistent beginners mind, we can fan the flames of the very frustrations that we are looking to alleviate. We can feel inadequate at the practice, given it is as “simple” as breathing and being still. This is why we need to go into mindfulness knowing that you will not “succeed” first time. You will never succeed, as it is not about success! Simply doing is enough. There is no expectation on you to do it right, as no one can explain what is right for you. You need to discover what right means to you and that takes practice.

Practice makes, better.

This is where you can apply another lesson I picked up, one from Simon Sinek. Once you can do, you need to apply consistency to your doing. Like leadership, there is a temptation to treat mindfulness with intensity. That if I spend 10 hours today meditating or do a 6 week program, that I’ll be “mindful”. This is the exact opposite of how to approach it. The value of mindfulness comes from doing a few minutes every day. Mindfulness is a mental muscle, it needs to be warmed up and stretched. You can’t start off lifting 100kg, you need to slowly build up to it. In the same way, you can’t overcome intense stress after a few meditations. As with any other muscle, it can also cramp up. This is what is happening in the monologue above, our mind is stuck on itself and so needs time to heal and stretch out again. Fair warning, this does happen from time to time, even for those that are practiced in mindfulness.

When that happens, you can go to a retreat or do a workshop to strengthen the muscle. Like going to a personal trainer, it is important to check in with someone more experienced, to get some advice if you still feel you are not getting it but if you don’t keep training after, then it is no different to that gym membership card that gathers dust come February.

For those days in between tune ups, when you do feel like motivation is lacking, I found the advice in this this video useful. It discusses some of the pitfalls in trying to establish a habit and how you can overcome them. The key, is to start where you can start. Even a small amount of mindfulness, 2 minutes, even 30 seconds each day can build up a habit. You can do it badly. You can do it for a very short period of time. However if you do it consistently, it will pay off. I find this useful on days when I can’t clear my head for my scheduled practice. If I can’t do it, I just step away for a while and maybe come back to it in the evening. Just getting that little bit in, every day.

You can’t force it

This is a big one, though more than a little complicated. The more effort you put into mindfulness, the less you will get from it. It sounds counterintuitive but there is a an old proverb for it:

This medicine will work but only if you don’t think about the monkey when taking it.

Sounds wacky right? It is something I picked up from The Way of Zen — Alan Watts, though it took a little time to get to grips with.

Often in life we do things to forget about something else, essentially focusing on, not focusing on something else. If you try this in mindfulness, it is a short path to an aneurysm, as we can’t escape the contradiction of trying not to think about the very thing we are trying not to think about. It’s just not possible. It is the same as the mind telling you, you are thinking too much.

A more modern twist on this is “The Game” for those that don’t know about it you can read here, for those that do, sorry. It’s a fun game to play but it also demonstrates how difficult it is to not think of something. Knowing you are playing the game means you automatically lose. This is precisely why mindfulness is not about not thinking. It is about trying to achieve a state of being, where we acknowledge that we are always thinking but that sometime we might not be thinking in a healthy manner. When we notice that our minds have wandered into unhelpful thinking patterns, we gently bring our thoughts back to a central, soft focus on what we should be paying attention to, the present moment.

This is the core idea behind the basic breathing exercises, that are the foundation of mindfulness. Through focusing gently on the breath, a feeling of warmth in the body, a projection of light or even just holding a simple object in your hand; we train the mind to be attentive to the present, without force or judgement. When we drift away from that focus we gently bring it back.

Practical applications

While mindfulness is great for personal growth and taking some stress out of everyday life, there are also real world benefits to it, that I take into my work life. Though admittedly not as consistently as I would like.

One is Active Listening, a coaching practice that many facilitators might be familiar with and one, that I think, has elements of mindfulness nested within it. The goal of active listening is to be attentive to people you are speaking with. Being mindful of the conversation, listening to what the other person is saying right now, not overthinking your response or forcing the conversation in a direction you want it to go. Instead allowing topics to flow and maybe let points pass by, if the conversation has moved on. Doing this, while also not paying so much attention that you are just listening and not actually engaged in the conversation, is a difficult task. It is a gentle balance of being present but not forcing in any one direction. When you can achieve this, conversations feel much more rewarding and less like an inquisition.

Another one that I used long before I knew there was a name for it is; the two feet, one breath technique. This is the simple practice of just stopping for a moment, maybe before a potentially stressful meeting or discussion, noticing your two feet on the floor and being fully aware of a full breath cycle. This is enormously useful in centring myself before meetings or presentations. Checking in on whether I might have some residual stress from the previous meeting, where I might lash out at someone, far more than is necessary. I may not be able to stop it from happening but in being more aware, I can more quickly correct myself.

Both of these are some of the small things that you can do every day, outside of your formal practice and there are many more to discover.

The little moments are the best

Sitting down and doing the daily practice is good, it helps train your mind and is essential to be able to put other parts into practice. However the best feeling is when you catch yourself in a bad thought pattern, pull yourself out of it and can pay attention to how you feel. If you have used an app like headspace it can seem really frustrating when Andy talks about “Oh ya, thinking” as I rarely find myself able to do that during the exercise. However I often find myself saying that when I am out for a walk. I catch myself halfway down a path, realising that I have not been paying attention to my surroundings for ages and go “Oh ya, I was thinking. Enough of that! Enjoy the walk!” Work or whatever problem will still be there when I get back.

I also find little moments doing this with my food. There is a whole other topic on mindful eating but it is definitely something I love, just catching a hit of flavours from your food and sitting with that feeling for a few minutes. As opposed to the usual way I eat:

Frustration Busters

Everyone’s experience of mindfulness is different, unfortunately it is difficult for those guiding the sessions to tailor things exactly to your liking, unless you are lucky enough to be doing it 1:1. These are some of the little mental hacks I have put in place to avoid any additional frustration when trying to do the practice.

Breathing — If like me you often have a stuffed up nose, the instruction to breath in through the nose and out through the mouth can be a bit annoying. I find myself saying “I can’t! Stop poking at it!”. The goal of saying this is only to take slow, deep breaths, you can do this through the nose or mouth or a combination of both, it’s up to you. Just recognise the instruction as; take a deep breath in a way that is comfortable for you.

The same is true of other instructions, if you feel the way they are phrased in the practice bothers you, try to reframe them to something more comfortable. If you are unsure of what the intent is in order to reframe them, ask someone else what their interpretation of it is.

Body Scan — When doing a body scan, it is not entirely intuitive how to do it. Each of us has a different mental image of our bodies. There are a couple of mental tricks I use to help. One is to think of a photocopier light, gently scanning down my body, whatever the light is touching on, I focus on. This helps me to keep moving and avoid fixating on or jumping to a particular spot that might be sore or uncomfortable. It also helps to think of it coming back up if I finish the scan quickly, to go back over everything.

If there is an area that I find isn’t giving me a lot of feedback I imagine my hand gently sliding across it, just to check if it is awake. Sometimes I won’t get anything from that either, in which case, I just leave it. It is fine if certain parts of the body don’t “respond” during a body scan. That’s normal and may move around the body from day to day. Sensations in other areas of the body might be higher and the “normal” feeling is just too quiet to hear.

It is not for everyone!

While I have gotten great benefits from practicing mindfulness, as have many others, mindfulness is not for everyone! This is an important thing to understand, as mindfulness is quickly becoming popular and some people may sell it as the cure all for all your mental health needs. I had read a little on this prior to doing the professional course, which reinforced what I had learned. If you have pre-existing mental health issues and are getting help for that, talk to whoever you are getting help from, before looking into practicing mindfulness alone. It may need to be done in safe setting, with the ability to talk to someone after each session or they may say that it is not recommended until you are in a better place.

Even if you don’t have an issue that is being treated but find yourself struggling with the practice (more than what I described above), stop and talk to someone with professional experience on the matter. There is no point trying to do this and subjecting yourself to daily torture, in the hopes it will help. This may seem contradictory to the advice in the opening but there is a big difference between not being able to form a habit and something being genuinely uncomfortable or unpleasant.

I have also found a significant difference between some of the apps on the market. We espouse them as a simple way to improve mental health, especially now with so many people feeling the strain of months of lockdowns and isolation. However, some go much deeper into topics than others, so be careful with them. They are not games. Do some research, try them out when you are in a good place mentally and again, seek professional advice where you feel uncertain.

Lastly, if you find the formal exercises too challenging, like breathing or visualisations, there are a multitude of different ways to do mindfulness. Simply getting out for a walk or a run, while being fully aware of how you feel during it and paying attention to your surroundings, is a form of mindfulness. Even after years of practice, there are days I just can’t do it and it is a great comfort to know I can just put on a coat and go for a walk to get some mindfulness.

Finally

Enjoy it. While I have called out some criticisms and frustrations of the practice I really love doing it and I’m happy I have kept it up, though I have lapsed a few times in the practice. So one last bit of advice is to get a buddy that can help encourage you to do it, like going to gym. For the last 2 years I have been doing it with a number of colleagues in work. So if you are passionate about mindfulness and have facilitation skills, it can be very rewarding to help others get a little mindfulness in their day. Even where it is just blocking out the time so you can all listen to an app together.

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Multidimensional Engineer working in HPE with an interest in many things.

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Alan Duggan

Alan Duggan

Multidimensional Engineer working in HPE with an interest in many things.

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