Mental health and wellbeing is very close to our hearts, and while we truly aim to have an always-on approach to covering all aspects of mental health, we have chosen to shine an extra bright light on #WorldMentalHealth today, and for the rest of October.
We bring you The Big Burn Out — a content series made up of honest personal essays, expert advice and practical recommendations.
Mindfulness is certainly having a moment, but it's not a contemporary fad — it's an ancient practice that's been around for millennia. In simple terms, being mindful involves being in the present. It's about focusing your awareness on the current moment, while acknowledging your thoughts, sensations, and feelings in a calm manner. It's about connecting your body and mind and experiencing each moment fully. There are various ways to practice mindfulness, from meditating to working on colouring books, and I've tried a lot of them. Here's how I'm attempting to make mindfulness an increasing part of my daily life.
Meditation can be hard. As soon as I try to empty my mind of all distracting thoughts, the space gets filled immediately with to-do lists, replays of recent conversations, or weekend plans. But when there is someone's voice guiding me through it, reminding me to come back to the present, it becomes a hundred times easier. I found it really helpful to go to actual meditation classes, run by a nun from my local Buddhist community. Even if you don't live close to a Buddhist community, chances are there's a meditation course near you. Failing that, there are apps that can guide you.
Focusing on the breath
Concentrating on the sensation of air passing in and out of my nostrils is one of the most helpful things my meditation teacher taught me. It helps keep my mind as still as possible during meditation. It's like another version of that saying, "If you don't want to think of an elephant, think of a giraffe instead." It's so difficult to not think (and you're not actually aiming for complete emptiness, anyway) so just try to shift your focus onto a physical sensation. That will be a major positive step in your mindfulness practice. We worked our attention up through our bodies too, so don't worry if you get bored of the metaphoric nostril-gazing. You can focus on your feet, fingers, chest — whatever works. On the subject of breathing, push your breath right down to your belly as you inhale, and feel it rise, and then lower as you breathe out. Deep breathing like this will help you feel grounded and centred.
Learning to stand and stare
So often I rush through my day, going from one task to the next, never really looking up, quite literally, as I go from place to place. This is certainly not mindfulness. But when I happen to catch a glimpse of a beautiful full moon, or a butterfly flits across my eyeline, I'm spontaneously brought into the present moment, and I realise just how wonderful the world around me is. This helps me feel more grateful for all the simple things, and that in turn makes me behave in a much calmer, happier way. Paying attention to the natural world around us is great, but there's always something to closely pay attention to, whether that's the lines on the escalator step, or the smell of freshly made bread as I pass a bakery. Whenever I can, I try to become aware of all my senses, and what I can see, hear, smell, touch, and (when appropriate!) taste. If you find this hard to do outside, try creating a calm space in your home, which might be less overwhelming as you begin your mindfulness practice.
Limiting screen time
Eliminating as many distractions as possible is one of the ways I was able to increase my experience of "being in the now." It's all too easy to turn to your phone when you have an idle few minutes. I did this way too much, to the point where I took steps to kick my phone habit. Getting back into nature is an excellent way to be mindful, but it's not always practical — I don't particularly fancy going into a field at 9 o'clock at night. But even when communing with the natural world isn't an option, we can still be in the present. Turning off the TV and silencing your phone helps.
I'm pretty sceptical of fads and guffawed when "mindful colouring books for adults" gained cult status. But, I'm a convert. However, there is a caveat: I never actually bought an adult colouring book. And I didn't deliberately try this technique for mindfulness. I find the kind of designs aimed at adults are too intricate, and for a perfectionist like me who doesn't want to go over the lines, too frustrating. So I discovered, quite by chance, that colouring is relaxing, and it does allow me to focus my attention on the present. But that was because I was colouring in my 4-year-old's Princess book. It was easy enough to be stress-free, but interesting enough to hold my attention. If you're not on board with adult colouring, perhaps sneak a try at a child's colouring sheet. You might find it works.