A couple of weeks ago I gave a workshop on mindfulness to a London company. At the end, as on all my workshops, the participants filled out a feedback form, and I hung out to chat to a few. Feedback helps my content grow and evolve, and serve more people in the right way. So I was delighted to hear that what people wanted out of this workshop was to hear more about my own journey with mindfulness, how I practice and how it’s improved the way I work.
It’s a topic pretty much begging for a blog post, so here goes.
First, let’s talk about what I think mindfulness is:
Simple as that really. And here’s what I think a mindfulness practice is:
Imagine you’re an army recruit. What you’re aiming for as your mum and dad drop you off on the base for training is to become focused, disciplined, resilient, powerful and useful.
Mindfulness has much the same benefits. You’re aiming to train your mind to filter out the noise, so you can zero in on what matters, and not let what doesn’t turn you into a basket case.
The first way you practice mindfulness – meditation – is like your basic daily soldier stuff (that’s a technical term FYI).
It’s the equivalent of getting up every morning, making your bed (to within an inch of its life I imagine), pulling on your excellently pressed uniform, lacing up your jack boots, grabbing your rifle and falling in. It gives you structure. It sets you up right. Pretty soon, you start feeling weird when you don’t do it.
I started meditating seriously in January 2015. I’d dabbled here and there before, but nothing really stuck. That year I downloaded the Equanimity app on a friend’s advice and meditated for five minutes every single day, writing in the little notes section how it went. (I also recommend the following apps: Headspace, Calm, Omvana, and someone recently told me about Buddhify which looks ACE).
‘Five minutes a day!’ I hear you cry. Yes, five minutes. If there’s one thing I’ve learned turning my own health around and the health of many other wonderful people too, it’s that you gotta start small. At the beginning, all you’re looking to do is establish the routine, the habit.
You plant it, then you grow it.
Sometimes I’d do a simple breath meditation. Other times I’d recite a traditional mantra, like ‘So hum’ (‘I am that’), or do a guided chakra meditation.
I kept myself at five minutes until I itched to sit longer. Then I extended to 10, then 15, eventually 20. If I missed a day, I didn’t beat myself up, simply started again the next. I was pretty proud of myself when, at the end of the year, I’d clocked up 40 hours of meditation.
There’s no one who wouldn’t benefit from a meditation practice. Studies have shown that whatever type of work you do, meditation makes you better at it. So no matter whether work challenges your reasoning-, creative-, relationship- or management skills, or all of the above, meditation will strengthen those skills.
How flippin’ fantastic is that?
Summary: Meditate daily if you can. Start small. Use an app or video to get you started.
The second way to practice mindfulness – what I call ‘Mindful activities’ – is like the assault course, or being out on manoeuvres. It’s the stuff you do to actively build your mindful muscles.
I recommend turning a few daily activities into ‘mindful activities’. Things like walking, waiting for trains or buses, making tea, showering, washing the dishes or brushing your teeth – anything you usually do on autopilot or while doing another activity at the same time.
Honestly now, who wanders round the house brushing their teeth while stuffing things in their handbag? Who checks their email on the loo? Who walks while listening (okay, sort of listening) to e-books?
Have you noticed how multitasking makes us bonkers? It’s no wonder we collapse on the sofa exhausted in the evening when our mind has been doing at least two things at once for twelve hours.
My daily meditation practice pretty much evaporated the day we got Bruce, our rescue dog. He’s not an animal that likes to be kept waiting, and being the designated morning walker, it’s as much as I can do to pee, make a warm lemon water and get dressed before he’s dragging me out the door. Bye bye morning medi.
So I decided to turn my hour-long walk into a mindful activity. While I’ve noticed that many other dog-owners wander around with their eyes glued to their phone, I leave mine behind and make a point of looking up and around. I try to be a witness to the wonderfulness that is my favourite park during the seasons. I listen for the birds, smell the mulchy smells, and give Bruce moral support during ‘Squirrelwatch’.
When my mind wanders, I bring it back. Simple as.
My morning walks are like a breath of fresh air through the brain. On the days when my hubby and switch dog-walking shifts I inevitably get to the afternoon and feel…odd. Scattered, flappy, unfocused. And then I realise why. No walk. No mindfulness.
My morning mindful walk is so powerful that I tend to walk everywhere like that: headphone free, phone tucked away. I’ve also deleted Facebook and Mail off my phone so I get my train platform time back. And when I talk to someone I try to focus my entire attention on them. These are my mindful activities. Walking. Talking. Waiting.
Then, of course, there’s my yoga practice. My ultimate mindful activity. Yoga is, at its essence, mindful movement. When you join your breath with your poses, experiencing your body as you move, hold, flow – you’re doing yoga. When you’re in down dog wondering what to have for dinner, you’re making shapes while you think. And it works the same as any mindful activity: you notice your mind wandering, you bring it back – to your breath, to your body, to the moment.
Summary: Find one or two activities to practice mindfully every time you do them. Give them your full attention and when your mind wanders, bring it back.
The third way to practice mindfulness is what I call, ‘Mindful moments’.
Back on the army base, this is basically, ‘Stop and drop’ mindfulness. It’s your drill sergeant yelling, ‘Drop and gimme twenty private!’ while you’re in the queue for lunch. It’s the mindfulness you practice any time, anywhere, in any challenging situation.
This practice is almost the result of practicing the other two. When you’ve become used to paying attention to what’s going on around and inside you, you can’t help but notice when what’s going on around and inside you has taken a turn for the overwhelming.
Five different deadlines. 500 unopened emails. Projects flying out of your ears. Back-to-back meetings. People pinging you, calling you, needing you.
This is when you stop, close your eyes and breathe.
Your breath is your anchor. As you consciously feel your lungs filling with oxygen, your nervous system loosens. As you become rooted in your body, your intuition fires up, answers arrive, creativity deepens. And, crucially, perspective happens.
Chronic stress is a result of finding yourself freeze-framed in fight or flight mode. The cortisol that floods your system when s**t hits the fan helps us think, move, react. But when the flood turns into a daily flow, you’re in trouble. Risk factors for disease rocket upwards. The collagen that makes your skin plump breaks down, ageing you. You accumulate belly fat. You feel tired but wired. Your adrenal glands (responsible for hormonal balance and energy production) slowly fry.
These STOP–BREATHE–FEEL moments are crucial in allowing cortisol levels to slip back down the scale.
It’s like closing down a browser window that had twenty tabs open. Like returning slowly to the ground floor after rocketing to the top.
I have these moments all the time. I love what I do and I tend to get really excited about it. I can talk at 100 miles an hour about cold-pressed juice (no joke, happened the other day), why we all need supplements (sorry, you can’t get all your nutrition from food these days) or why I never do headstands in yoga (squashes your vertebrae innit’), then need to spend all evening going gaga in front of Gilmore girls, brain well and truly fried.
Mindfulness allows me to catch myself in the act and slow myself down before the energetic train wreck.
Whether I’m teaching yoga, having a big deal phone convo or standing on stage talking to 100 people, the kind of chicken-run energy (you know – running around squawking and flapping) I can build up when I’m buzzing with excitement is no use to anyone. To deliver my best, I need to get grounded. And to do that I stop, plant my feet, breathe and feel.
Which brings me nicely onto one of biggest gifts that mindfulness has delivered to me: the ability to notice how I’m feeling – mind, body and spirit, and then employ the tools to correct it.
Through teaching yoga I can see that so many of us are shut off from the way we feel. We numb out pain in the body and discomfort in the mind. Almost every time I teach I find myself questioning a student about how a pose feels in a process that’s akin to pulling teeth.
‘Does that feel okay?’
‘Intensity or discomfort?’
‘Is that better?’
‘How about now?’
We live so much in our minds we cannot feel our own bodies. Only today someone in another workshop asked me what the difference between pain and discomfort is. (My answer FYI: ‘You need to feel out the difference in your body’. Oh and one sounds like, “Ouch!”‘.)
We barely credit our bodies when they’re complaining to us and don’t notice how we feel emotionally until someone says, ‘Hey, how are you?’ Then our standard response is pretty much always: ‘Fine’.
To practice mindfulness is to become hyper aware of how you feel.
Achy back. Achy heart. Tight shoulder. Sticky neck. Up. Down. Exhausted. Elated.
When you spend time each day in your breath, in your body; when you slow down and tune in, you notice these things. I do, all the time. And then you can take steps to righting them. You can actually ask your wise body what it needs in that moment, and deliver it. Some food. Some fresh air. A cup of tea. A listening ear. A stand up. A lie down. A stretch. A rest. A hug.
In fact, don’t rely on mindful moments arriving on their own after you’ve been practicing a while. Schedule those things in! Set a reminder to go off on your phone every few hours or create an associative trigger, i.e., every time you wait for the kettle to boil, check in.
Summary: Watch for and nurture mindful moments in your day. In response to a challenging situation or a specific reminder or trigger, stop, breathe and feel.
I gave a TEDx talk last weekend: my first, and my largest ever audience – 100 people. 45 minutes before I went on stage I found a quiet room for a meditation. I focused on my breath. Felt myself in my body. Quieted that voice in my head that asked, over and over, ‘What if you screw this up?’. I came into my own strength. And I delivered a flawless talk. Not a screw up in sight.
Mindfulness, once you’ve practiced it, is like a toolbox you can reach into any time you need to. Whether you’re on stage or on the phone, talking to your boss or your boyfriend, feeling a little squirmy or totally freaking out, it’s there for you. You turn on your breath, become attentive, and either find the solution to or perspective on your situation.
Mindfulness is an instant chill pill. Self-administered. No prescription required.
Years ago I remember experiencing the same feeling over and over again: Like I wanted to unscrew my head from my shoulders and put it to one side simply so I could have some relief from crazy brain. Like I had ALL the tabs open. It’s only just occurred to me but I never get this feeling now.
I got the tools.
I get on my mat and move. Or I sit and breathe. Or I stand and breathe. Or I look around me, drink in the sights, sounds and smells of wherever I happen to be, and come back to earth.
If you think you can’t afford to give yourself a moment of peace, you’re dead wrong. You can and you must. Because it makes you better. And that makes everything around you better. Show up for yourself and you can show up for others.
Meditate for five minutes a day. More if you can and when you want to. Choose one or two mindful activities. And when you notice yourself wigging out, do a stop and drop mindfulness.
Control your breath and you control your attention; control your attention and you control your life.