Building Your Mindfulness Muscle

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What is mindfulness and how could a mindfulness practice support student wellbeing?Mindfulness refers to the development of greater presence or awareness – living in the moment. While this may sound simple, many people find it challenging to be in this state, particularly during the ongoing global pandemic.

Rather than being in the present our thoughts are often directed towards the future or the past. Either we spend our time worrying about what might be: ‘what if my dissertation isn’t good enough?’, ‘what if this pandemic never ends?’ ‘what if I can’t find a job when this is over?’ Or we ruminate over, and even regret, what has already transpired: ‘If only I had a stronger CV’, ‘if only I had travelled more before the restrictions came into place’, ‘if only I had made more progress on my thesis.’

Developing greater presence not only holds the promise of enhancing our productivity and increasing our enjoyment of various tasks, studies have highlighted a number of additional benefits associated with mindfulness. According to the Mindfulness Initiative, ‘A recent review of 114 studies found consistent improvements in mental health and wellbeing, notably reduced stress, anxiety and depression….’[1]

Although these are all good reasons to start practicing mindfulness, being in the moment isn’t a state that comes naturally to most of us. The good news is that there are ways to help us build our mindfulness muscle. Below I’ll share six of my favourite practices for cultivating greater presence.

PRACTICE 1: GO FOR A MINDFUL WALK

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One of the quickest ways to build our mindfulness muscle is to consciously engage our five senses. Our sight, hearing, sense of touch, taste and smell are what we stop paying attention to when we become busy and stressed out.

Consider the last time you went for a walk. Although you may have intended for the walk to relax you or give you a break from your work, how much attention were you paying to what was around you? Were you fully present in your surroundings or were you more in head? How many times did you check your phone as you walked? When we allow ourselves to become distracted in this way, it’s as though we are walking with our eyes closed.

Today, try going for a mindful walk. In order to bring you into the present moment, begin by putting your phone on airline or silent mode. Next, select a colour to focus on in advance and simply count the number of times you spot this colour during your walk. The intention of this practice is to use your chosen colour as a device to bring you into the moment. As you do this, see how much more you observe during your walk as you consciously pay attention to your surroundings.

If this practice feels a little strange at first, it’s simply because we aren’t accustomed to paying attention to what’s in front of us. The more you practice paying attention, the more natural it will become.

PRACTICE 2: MINDFUL EATING

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Have you ever felt like you were too busy to eat? If so, you are not alone. With our increasingly fast-paced lifestyles and work driven culture, taking time to eat is seen as a luxury that most of us cannot afford. Eating at our desks or on the run has become the norm. As a consequence of this, most of us eat so quickly that we aren’t really tasting our food.

A survey conducted by Conscious Food revealed that people spend an average of six minutes eating breakfast, eight on lunch and nine minutes for dinner. This amounts to a startling 23 minutes in total for all three meals. This means we tend to spend more time cooking a meal and cleaning up than we devote to actually eating that meal. Kristina Locke, the founder of Conscious Food has said: ‘We are constantly surprised by the lack of time and importance that people dedicate to eating.’

The next mindfulness practice is to pick a snack and consciously slow down as you eat it. It can be a piece of fruit or a square of chocolate – whatever you prefer is fine. Before you begin eating, take your time to notice its texture and begin to smell the food. If it’s chocolate, let it melt in your mouth. If it’s something else, chew it slowly and deliberately and allow yourself to observe its flavours.

You may notice when you do this exercise that your taste buds begin watering before you even start eating and this is not accidental. The digestive process begins even before we start a meal and when we eat too quickly we neglect this important step. It is therefore no accident that a staggering 73 percent of those polled in the Conscious Food survey admitted to suffering from digestive issues.

Eating too quickly not only compromises our digestion, it also ends up robbing ourselves of one life’s greatest pleasures. How much more enjoyable would the experience of eating be if you practiced mindful eating on a more regular basis?

From today onwards, start to make a conscious effort to eat more mindfully. If you eat most of your meals with another person, you can try mindful eating together by encouraging each other to deliberately slow down.

PRACTICE 3: JUST BREATHE

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One of the first symptoms we experience in a stressful situation is a shift in the quality of our breathing. We tend to develop a faster pace of breathing, which corresponds to an increase in our heart rate.

As our rate of breathing starts to accelerate, it also tends to become shallow. In this sense, we tend to breathe through our chest when we are stressed instead of our belly. The shallowness of our breathing means that vital oxygen is not able to properly circulate throughout our body in the moments when we most need it.

This practice involves reversing the symptoms of fight versus flight by engaging in a deep breathing exercise. In contrast to the shallow and quick breathing that has become a habit for many of us, we are going to practice breathing from our belly.

Begin by gently placing your hands on your belly and deliberately taking 15 deep breaths in and out. As you do this, notice your belly rising and falling with each breath. You may also observe your heart rate slowing down as you do this.

Take time to practice a minute of mindful breathing at specific intervals throughout your day, particularly in moments when you feel overwhelmed. Notice whether the practice of slowing down your rate of breathing helps you to feel calmer.

PRACTICE 4: STAY GROUNDED

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The next practice is drawn from a book by Mindfulness expert Anna Black called Mindfulness @ Work.

For this technique begin by bringing your attention to your feet. Feel the sensation of your feet as they come into contact with the ground. Gently push down and imagine your feet glued to the floor as you feel the solid ground underneath your feet. Begin to wiggle your toes and feel the sensation of your shoes or socks.

One of the reasons this practice is so beneficial is because, as Anna Black explains, ‘When something is weighted at the bottom, it is unlikely to fall over. You instantly bring yourself into contact with the present moment. The sense of groundlessness eases off…. Whatever is going on is still there, but you are about to face it from a place of stability and strength.’

If you are sitting at a desk, try and practice this simple and quick grounding exercise throughout your day. A subtle variation of this technique to further ground yourself is to imagine a chord running from the top of your head straight to the ground.

PRACTICE 5: LABEL NEGATIVE EMOTIONS

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Perhaps nothing brings us out of the present moment quicker than negative emotions. Whether it’s sadness, anger, fear, shame or helplessness, negative emotions can be uncomfortable and the tendency is to want to stuff these down or ignore them entirely.

Drawing again on Anna Black’s book Mindfulness @ Work, an alternative approach to dealing with negative emotions is to own the emotion we are experiencing and actually label it. As Black suggests: ‘Labelling creates a sense of distance from whatever is going on. We become like a plane, flying above the clouds. The clouds (emotions) are still there but there is a distance between them and us.’

Through creating some distance between ourselves and our negative emotions, we allow ourselves to be one step removed from them. When we stop over-identifying with these emotions it enables us to let go of them more quickly and easily.

The next time you experience a negative emotion, try to imagine yourself as an observer of the situation and simply label that emotion without judgment. See if this practice changes your perspective of the situation and the way in which you experience it.

PRACTICE 6: BE HERE NOW

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The final practice I’d like to share is a simple one that will reaffirm all of the other practices.

As I mentioned above, our mobile phones are often the biggest source of distraction for many people. However, this tip will involve using your mobile phone to help you cultivate greater awareness.

Select the reminder function on your phone and set three ‘Be Here Now’ reminders for specific points of time throughout your day. Ideally the reminders will be spaced apart (one in the morning, one in the afternoon and one in the evening). Use these reminders as an opportunity to evaluate how present you are.

Since our natural tendency is to slip out of the present moment and get caught up in busyness, stress and worry, it can be helpful to build in a gentle reminder to stay in the present throughout your day.

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[1]Carlson L. ‘Mindfulness-Based Interventions for physical conditions: A narrative review evaluating levels of evidence.’ See International Scholarly Research Notices. 2012; DOI:10. 5402/2012/651583; The Mindfulness Initiative, Mindful Nation UK,A Report by the Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group (MAPPG), 2015

 

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