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

 

It’s Not Just What You Eat, It’s How You Eat

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What are your New Year’s Resolutions this year? Unfortunately, statistics reveal that only 9.2% of people actually achieve their resolutions with 80% failing as early as February.

So how about selecting a more attainable resolution for the year ahead? Eating more healthily is often at the top of people’s resolution lists. Although we may not stick to our ideal nutritional plan throughout the year, we can still begin to make subtle improvements to our health by shifting the way we approach our meals.

It would be fair to say that mealtimes are not often prioritised in our society. 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. Whereas eating on the run (or at our desks) has become the norm. As a result, 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. As 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.’

Today, select a snack and commit to consciously slowing 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 mouth begins to salivate before you even begin eating and this is no accident. The digestive process begins in our brain before we start eating. When we eat too quickly and forget to chew, we neglect this important step. It is therefore not very surprising that a staggering 73% of those polled in the Conscious Food survey admitted to suffering from digestive issues.

Eating too quickly not only compromises our digestion, it also means that we end up robbing ourselves of one life’s greatest pleasures. How much more enjoyable would the experience of eating be if everyone made more time for their meals?

While there is no doubt that what we eat makes an impact on our health, how we eat is equally important. So, if the prospect of following a strict nutrition plan for 2019 feels a little daunting, perhaps introduce the more manageable resolution of cultivating a mindful eating practice this year.

Sign up for your free guide ‘8 Steps for Sustaining Motivation During Your PhD.’

Multitasking: The Opposite of Mindfulness

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Whenever the word multitasking is used, there is often a positive connotation associated with it. The fact that I can prepare dinner and chat with a friend on the phone while simultaneously ordering a book on Amazon is typically perceived to be a good thing. And so the assumption is that I should be happy that I am a good multitasker. Since the ability to multitask is viewed as such a valuable asset, it is not uncommon to find people referring to their multitasking skills on their CVs and in job interviews.

Despite the positive connotations associated with multitasking, being a multitasker is something that I consciously avoid. Attempting to juggle multiple tasks at once takes us away from the present moment, which is one of the core principles of mindfulness. Focusing on multiple tasks in a single moment creates a feeling of being scattered and pulled in several different directions. When we say no to multitasking, we allow ourselves to fully complete a task before moving on to the next. In so doing, we remain completely present in that moment and as a result, we end up completing tasks with greater ease and fewer accidents! It can also bring greater focus and enjoyment to what we are doing.

So there is a lot to gain in saying no to multitasking and there are several small action steps we can put into place to help overcome the urge to multitask. For instance, switching off our phones when we are working, designating set time periods in each day to check email, and also setting clearer boundaries between working hours and relaxation time. While these may seem like little things, they can all yield important results in helping us to stay in the present moment.

How to Start and Sustain a Meditation Practice

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In one of my earlier posts (‘How Meditation Can Change Your Brain’) I explored the scientific evidence behind meditation. Despite the growing body of evidence in its favour, the process of beginning and sustaining a meditation practice can still feel quite daunting. As many reasons as there are to begin meditating, there seem to be an equal number of reasons and excuses not to.

I’ve found it quite useful to acknowledge this underlying resistance and confront it head on. With this in mind, I will discuss some of my own objections to starting a meditation practice and the strategies I’ve used to overcome this resistance.

1) ‘I’m too busy to meditate’

The first and most common objection to meditating is the feeling that we simply do not have enough time. As busy students and academics, there never seems to be enough hours in the day as it is, so how can we justify an additional item on our to-do lists?

Each day we take the time to do a number of tasks that we deem to be essential (such as eating, brushing our teeth, showering and sleeping), yet when it comes to meditating it can feel like a struggle to find the time. Very often this struggle stems from the perception of meditation as an optional indulgence – something which we can do when we aren’t so busy. The truth is that meditating can be of equal, if not greater, importance than these other daily tasks, and it is actually when we at our busiest and most overwhelmed that we would benefit from it the most.

I’ve often found that when it comes to starting a meditation practice, what is crucial is not the actual amount of time we dedicate to it, but the simple act of showing up to meditate on a regular basis. So even if it means taking just a few minutes at the end of each day to centre yourself and focus on your breath, this small action can go a long way towards developing a daily meditation practice.

2) ‘I’m confused about what to do’

 As meditating has become increasingly popularized, so have the range of different meditating styles and techniques. This often leads to questions, and sometimes confusion, over which methods work best. Should I meditate with my eyes open or closed? Am I meant to repeat a mantra while I meditate? Should I listen to music or is it best to have complete silence? Are guided meditations recommended or not?

Irrespective of these different meditation styles and techniques, what they all have in common is an emphasis on slowing down our thoughts and becoming more present. None are better or worse than others and the key is to find what works best for you. This may involve a process of trial and error. It could be that on certain days you enjoy meditating in complete silence, whereas on other days you may find a guided meditation more comfortable.

It’s completely ok to experiment with different methods and then decide which you prefer. The most important thing to remember is that there is no right or wrong, and it’s simply a matter of finding out what suits you best.

3) ‘I’m not good at this’

The final part of resistance to meditating derives from our ever present inner critic – the one which constantly tells us we aren’t doing it right because we can’t get our thoughts to stop. Herein lies one of the greatest misconceptions relating to meditation. The goal is not (and never could be) to push away all distractions and to stop our thoughts. Instead, it is to simply slow down the pace of our thoughts, and to become more aware. In so doing, we learn to observe our thoughts without judgment.

Because of our over active human minds, there will inevitably be days when slowing down our thoughts will feel more challenging and when we will succumb to distractions – this is inevitable and it applies to even the most experienced meditators among us. The key is to accept these ups and downs with patience and compassion for ourselves, and then to bring these same qualities into our daily lives, and in our interactions with others.

This raises an important lesson I’ve learned about meditation, which continues to fascinate me and also comfort me on the days when I feel most distracted. Contrary to what many people believe, meditating actually has very little to do with what happens on our meditation cushion. The judgments relating to how good we are at it are not only misplaced, they also overlook the fundamental purpose of meditating.

The objective is not to measure how long we can sit in silence for; instead, the purpose of meditating is to actively cultivate certain qualities within ourselves that we can carry out into the world.

I hope you have found this discussion helpful. If you have any questions or would like some more tips on how to start and sustain your meditation practice, feel free to email me at academease@gmail.com.

Bridging the Divide Between Academia and Wellness

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On a sunny morning in September I met my friend Ashley at a cafe near Holborn station in central London. I was about to start a new job at the London School of Economics (LSE) – the same institution where I had been a student over a decade earlier. LSE had been a wonderfully vibrant place to study. During the many years I had spent there as a student I remember feeling inspired by my professors, energized by the lectures I attended and excited by the diversity of the student population. After holding academic positions at the University of Oxford and King’s College London I was delighted to be returning ‘home.’

At the same time I was aware that LSE had changed a lot over the years. To begin with the university grounds looked completely different. The LSE campus had expanded and now boasted an impressive collection of new academic buildings. There were also many more facilities for staff and students, including cafes and study spaces, as well as a brand new Student Union building. In addition to these improved amenities, the way in which courses were taught had significantly changed. Nowadays everything was administered online and students could conveniently access all course materials at the click of a button. Reflecting on the endless hours I spent photocopying from the course collection at LSE’s Social Science Library (and all the paper cuts I endured in the process!) I wondered if today’s students appreciated just how lucky they were.

But the more I reflected, the more I began to question just how lucky today’s students really are. Alongside the sprawl of shiny new buildings, the improved facilities and the convenience of new learning technologies, the experience of being a student today is undoubtedly much more daunting than it was in my day. Tuition fees have nearly doubled and the job prospects awaiting graduates are few and far between. Beyond these factors are the added pressures of studying in the midst of digital distractions. Whether it’s checking email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or WhatsApp, today’s students are overloaded with information and constantly connected. As I recounted to Ashley the types of pressures students faced today, she made a suggestion that I will never forget: “Why not begin your classes with a mindfulness meditation or a breathing exercise – something to centre your students at the start of the class and get them to focus?”

The first thought that came to my mind was that this was a crazy suggestion. There was no way I could begin my classes with a meditation or mindfulness exercise. This was a university after all, not a yoga class! What would my students think if I began my classes in this way? Meditation was something that I practiced at home in order to prepare myself for the day ahead and the idea of bringing this technique to work with me was pretty much the craziest thing I had ever heard. So I tried to find a gentle way to express to my friend that her idea was a bit out there. Breathing techniques and mindfulness exercises were simply not something that academics did in their classrooms and I was not prepared to be labelled a hippy and become the laughing stock of the University! Ashley then asked me an important question, which stayed with me for several weeks after: “But do you think your students would benefit from this technique?”

It was tough to deny the growing body of scientific evidence in favour of meditation and mindfulness strategies. Breathing and centring techniques have proven to be one of the quickest and most effective ways to calm the nervous system and alleviate stress. These types of techniques could also be applied beyond the classroom and in that sense, if I were actually willing to incorporate this into my class, I would be giving my students a tool they could draw upon for the rest of their lives.

In recent years there has been a burgeoning interest in mindfulness and meditation techniques across the UK. This has led to the emergence of organizations like the Mindfulness Initiative – an advocacy project that works in conjunction with parliamentarians, the media and policy makers to increase awareness of how mindfulness can benefit society. In 2015 the Initiative oversaw the publication of the Mindful Nation UK report – the first policy document which seeks to address mental health concerns and enhance wellbeing in the areas of education, health, the criminal justice system and the workplace through the application of mindfulness techniques.

After my conversation with Ashley I began to do a bit of research on the extent to which meditation and mindfulness tools have been applied in higher education settings. What I learned is that despite the growing popularity of these approaches and their demonstrated capacity in alleviating stress, surprisingly few universities have started to explore how these wellness strategies might be utilised by students – yet there clearly is a need. According to the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the number of students with a declared mental health problem has more than doubled from 8,000 to 18,000 over the past 7 years.

Reversing these alarming statistics will require a substantial investment in student wellbeing. It will also require more awareness of the fact that how students approach their studies is equally – if not more – important as the content of what they study. My initial resistance to Ashley’s suggestion is indicative of the extent to which this has been overlooked. While I have practiced meditation and mindfulness strategies over the years in my own time, after spending most of my adult life in the higher education sector the prospect of applying these tools in the classroom is something that had never even crossed my mind. It really goes to show the degree to which the academic path has diverged from the field of wellness. I am indebted to Ashley for her seemingly crazy suggestion and for inspiring me to bring two ostensibly incompatible worlds together. Not only do I now believe it is possible to build a bridge between academia and wellness, I believe it is essential that we find ways to do this.