It is 3pm in my living room, and a calm voice is inviting me to focus on the here and now; and on each breath as it goes in and out of my nostrils or up and down at my tummy. It does not matter that my mind may wander, whether it’s to the past, to current problems, to future planning, even to day dreams. Each time I become aware of this wandering, I am to take note of where my mind has temporarily gone to, and then simply bring my attention back to focus on my breath again – as I inhale and exhale at this particular moment.
There are many different versions of the CD which I regularly listen to as part of my formal practice: non-judgmentally paying attention on purpose to what is happening, as it is happening, in the moment. This includes awareness of bodily sensations and our experiences of seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, moving, thinking and feeling. By becoming more aware of ourselves, we begin to notice automatic reactions to situations and challenges which cause us unnecessary suffering.We can miss out on so much of our lives – on ‘automatic pilot’ – if we are consumed with anticipating the future or ruminating about the past.
Mindfulness has now been part of my life since training to do it at Bangor University in 2008. It is not meant to feel easy, a skill to conquer or a way to deliberately blank and calm my mind. To expect a particular outcome is to actually defeat the object of the practice itself. It is the simple act of doing it and accepting how you are in the present moment, that is the key to it’s positive effect – a way of being. With practice, our minds can begin to relax and become open to choosing new, more beneficial ways of responding to our lives. The modest aim of the daily practice – of formal or informal practices – is to become aware of thoughts and bodily sensations as if they were clouds passing in the sky. It is remarkable how liberating it feels to be able to recognise that your thoughts are just thoughts, and that they are not ‘you’ or ‘reality’. ‘You’ are actually the sky and not the clouds.
While mindfulness, as a practice, is historically rooted in Eastern disciplines, it is also a universal practice that everyone can benefit from. Mindfulness is ‘Beautifully simple‘ and a way of learning how to relate directly to your life. It stops us from agonizing over what might have been or what could be. It just brings us back to the present. It is not something that you ‘have to get’; you already have it within you. Our level of presence and ability to be fully aligned with the moment is more important than knowledge itself, and is fundamentally about observation without criticism.
Stress is an unavoidable fact of this fast-paced and frantic life – part of the human condition and always has been. We all live with and cannot escape from uncertainties, difficulties, illness, ageing, death and an inability to control life events. Developing mindfulness skills can help us all deal more effectively with life’s difficulties such as divorce, bereavement, redundancy or just the pressures of work that is a reality for many today.You become more able to respond rather than react to unforeseen events thus improving your general health and sense of wellbeing. It helps halt becoming attached to thoughts and letting them spiral out of control.
Well documented scientific research has shown how regular meditation and mindfulness helps with many health problems, including heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, insomnia, chronic pain, cancer, immune problems, stress, anxiety and depression. Research has shown that the parts of the brain activated by mindfulness practice are the areas related to positive thoughts, compassion, happiness and openness.
David Rock and Dr Dan Siegel refers to ‘The Healthy Mind Platter’ as Seven daily essential mental activities to optimize brain matter and create wellbeing. Included within this is ‘Time In’, which is when we mindfully and quietly reflect internally, focusing on sensations, images, feelings and thoughts, which help to better integrate the brain. When we focus inwards – even for a few minutes – we use a different set of brain circuitry than outward focused activities such as texting and social media. ‘Time In’ encourages the brain circuitry activation and development within the areas of insight, empathy, compassion and wisdom. It allows us to honour and welcome differences in each other and consequently encourages attuned compassionate communication with yourself and others.
Mindfulness can also be applied to coaching; when we work from presence the whole coaching process flows and feels so much better. According to Dr Chris Johnstone, at a professional level, coaches who embody presence and practice mindfulness are able to: facilitate a deeper level of change and transformation, listen more attentively, be more empathic, focus more easily, manage emotional states more effectively, communicate more clearly, find solutions more effectively and access intuition more easily.
So, it is serendipity that I can combine my interest in mindfulness with my passion for becoming a Coach. I have a deep sense of knowing that I already have a huge advantage with my ability to observe myself and others and mindfully pay attention on purpose. I am adding years to my life on a moment to moment basis, rather than wasting my life thinking about the past and the future all the time.
A happy by-product is an increased feeling of connectivity with my environment and nature. I feel part of my environment and not separate from it. I can intuitively understand what Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh means when he says we need to move beyond talking ‘about the environment’, as this leads people to experience themselves and Earth as two separate entities and to see the planet in terms only of what it can do for them. To stop exploiting the world is possible only if there is a recognition that people and planet are ultimately one and the same.
As a result of this practice, I’m getting a glimpse of spaciousness in my mind, a feeling that I can be my own master, engaging with the “full catastrophe” of my life. My practice deepens and unfolds over time.