Mindfulness – Stress Relief and Living in the Present.

It’s easy to dismiss mindfulness as wishy-washy, hippy, new-age rubbish, but the fact cannot be ignored that in this busy, modern world, mindfulness is gaining more and more attention. More and more people are realising that they need to take some time out to relax and escape.

Our lives are busy, stressful and dominated by technology. If we are not worrying about what we need to do tomorrow, we’re worrying about what we should have done differently yesterday.

Stress is ugly. Stress is making us ugly. Stress ages us and inhibits muscle growth. Wait, what? Stress inhibits muscle growth? So all the time I am stressing about fitting in my work-outs around my work-life I am then making those work-outs less effective? This isn’t fair. And that green smoothie I rushed around making this morning before I rushed off to work? Well, stress hormones also affect digestion, preventing the absorption of needed vitamins from food, so stress is also preventing me from getting the full benefits from my carefully blended kale. Something must be done.

Now I am stressed about stress. Send help.

I am lucky to have an employer who recognises that life is stressful, and so yesterday I left my classes to the mercy of cover, and spent a full day, finding stillness and mindfulness with our resident counsellor and psychotherapist. Last week I had a two hour introduction, but yesterday’s session enabled me to develop my daily practice, as well as thinking about ways to help my pupils ease their own stress.

What is Mindfulness? In short,  Jon Kabat-Zinn states that it is:

  • Paying Attention
  • In a particular way
  • On purpose
  • In the present moment
  • Non judgementally.

A longer definition and discussion is available here:

Having a ‘mindful’ presence – even if only for a few minutes – can help us to create stillness out of any situation.  Making a conscious decision to be still is not the same as slumping on the sofa after a busy day.  Having space and time just to be still and quiet is really important for overall well-being.

I know that I for one spend a lot of time being busy. I balance an exercise regime with a demanding job and I have to work hard to find enough left of me to give to my home and relationship. Often, I don’t even realise I am stressed until I crash and burn. Mindfulness can help prevent that crash for many people and if you are reading this, and thinking that you need to reduce some stress, it is very easy to get started with being mindful.

Try this exercise in a few different contexts throughout the day:

Whatever you are doing – walking, talking, standing, sitting, eating etc.. – just stop for a moment, take three deep breaths and just check in with yourself. Be aware of your body and how it is feeling. Be aware of what you are feeling emotionally – and also what you have been thinking and doing. Notice your surroundings – if they are familiar to you, just check in and notice them fully for a few moments. If they are unfamiliar, just be present and bring your senses to bear on your environment. After a few moments of breathing and scanning like this, consciously return to what you have been doing. 

Mindfulness and meditation may conjure up an image of someone sitting cross-legged on the floor, but in fact you can be mindful almost anywhere and anytime. We practised mindful eating, with dates, chocolate and cheerios, focusing on the experience of the senses to slowly enjoy the food. This is an excellent technique for people who find themselves destroying an entire tube of pringles in one sitting, because they were not focusing on the TV rather than what they were doing. Eating slowly is a key to prevent over-eating. I also learned that mindfulness can be achieved in many ways. One of my colleagues on this course said he found himself most mindful when he focused on cutting out some music scores for an upcoming production. By being present and focusing on that one simple task, rather than trying to multitask, he said he felt a lot calmer. Another teacher agreed, saying that she had changed the tedious task of uploading exam results onto the system into a calming and focused task, using this music from Max Richter as a backdrop.

We may think we are excellent multi-taskers, but psychology has identified a state called Attention Deficit Trait – which is a purely environmental phenomenon linked to the multi-tasked lives we lead. The cold, hard truth is, we can’t multi-task; our attention shifts from task to task, and this can be unsettling, stressful and even dangerous when we are tired.

Doing one thing at a time, focusing on it in the present moment, can contribute positively to our wellbeing, but it is difficult when social media, emails and everything else demanding our attention gets in the way

Other ways that being present and mindful can help us, are that it can help the mind and body recover from stress; it can help us ‘unhook’ from our thoughts – which can often be unrealistic, twisted or even catastrophic – and help keep us in touch with our values and the bits of ‘me’ that aren’t just about thoughts and feelings.

“Through self-observation, more presence  comes into your life automatically. The moment you realize you are not present, you are present. Whenever you are able to observe your mind, you are no longer trapped in it. Another factor has come in, something that is not of the mind: the witnessing presence.”  – Eckhart Tolle

Try this brief exercise in presence from Eckhart Tolle

“Focus attention on the feeling inside you. Know that it is the pain-body. Accept that it is there. Don’t think about it  – don’t let the feeling turn into thinking. Don’t judge or analyze. Don’t make an identity for yourself out of it. Stay present, and continue to be the observer of what is happening inside you. Become aware not only of the emotional pain but also of “the one who observes,” the silent watcher. This is the power of the Now, the power of your own conscious presence.”,

One way many people enjoy being mindful is being outside. We are a community of dog lovers, and many staff said they had deliberately been taking their dog for a walk without looking at their phone, just focusing on the experience of nature. Yesterday, we stepped outside for a few moments and experienced walking mindfully. Some looked up at the sky, clouds, church spire; others focused on the child-like experience of kicking a stone along the ground. I enjoyed noticing the things that I rush past all the time: the change in feeling underfoot as I stepped from gravel to grass, the sound of the bees in the honeysuckle, the reflection in the water droplets on the leaves. It was very calming and I actually felt like I was living in the moment and making the most of everything that life was offering me at that time. I used to think that life was just making memories, but life is now and I want to focus more on the present.As I mentioned before I have been ‘taking 10’ every day with the Headspace app. It may seem strange to use technology to be mindful, as often technology is what causes a lot of stress for people, but I find it a useful way to remind myself to do it.

Everyone on my course is now very much on board with mindfulness, despite some initial cynicism. One of our colleagues from the science department used to work in a lab studying the effects of breath. Much of her biological explanation was very confusing to me, but I gathered that her research had demonstrated that hypertension can be completely avoided through proper breathing and enough fluid. In fact, the best thing anyone can do if they are at risk from hypertension is to take up yoga to help with breathing, and drink more water. You would be surprised at how breathing can affect so many things. Often when we are stressed or busy, we don’t breathe efficiently or properly, so when you realise that you are stressed, you should take a moment to check in on your breathing, and bring yourself back down with some deep breaths.

The Stress Relief Toolkit

There are three types of meditation that we might consider:

Mindfulness – the most  well-known practice, also known as ‘open-focus meditation’ – Open focus means an awareness of ongoing experience. The central element of mindfulness is to be aware of internal feelings such as bodily sensations, breath, thoughts, emotions, alongside external experiences of the senses, at the current moment with nonjudgmental acceptance.

Focused attention or concentrated meditation – this is where there is the attention is focused and the practice  directs attention on an  intentional process like the repetition of a phrase or breathing. This is often linked to a spiritual practice – Lovingkindness meditation for example.

Automatic self-transcending meditation –  enables individuals to move into a transcendent state e.g. Transcendental meditation or Non-Dual Awareness meditation. Something to aim for!

There are other ‘stillness’ tools, which I tried yesterday– including the Heart Coherence technique. These work on a slightly different principle to meditation, in that they are focused on bringing the heart rhythm back to coherence – rather than the chaotic rhythms that ensue when we are stressed. This is good for an emergency, at a particularly difficult time, whereas an ongoing mindfulness practice helps prevent and manage stress.

I can also recommend this site for further information and an introduction to guided practice.

As I continue to explore being mindful, and embed it into my lifestyle, I will update with some of the things I am learning and trying out. Once I have mastered the basics I want to be able to focus on  reflecting with depth on thoughts, feelings and behaviour, as well as feeling whole in body, mind and in my connection with the world, so expect these themes to come up in future posts.

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