Mindfulness: A Simple and Powerful Tool for Change
If there’s one skill I’ve learned that has had the most powerful impact on my ability to improve my well-being, it’s been mindfulness.
Mindfulness and Chronic Illness
Often mindfulness is thought of as just a particular kind of meditation, something to help you grab a few moments of peace. In fact, the aim of mindfulness meditation is to teach a skill that can be gradually applied to the rest of your waking life with a far more profound impact: The skill of present moment awareness.
In order to function efficiently in the face of huge amounts of information, our brains have developed certain kinds of subconscious programs so that we don’t have to consciously process it all. These programs use information from past events to predict how the current situation is going to pan out. Any kind of very repetitive event gets processed on a subconscious autopilot without ever having to pass through our consciousness at all. For example, have you ever driven to work and arrived realising you don’t remember any part of that particular journey?
Unfortunately once chronic illness hits, these programmed thought patterns and behaviours that happen beneath our awareness may no longer serve us. For example, many of us have a “completion complex” so that even when we’re tiring of a task, we’ll automatically push a little harder to finish it off. In a world where there is no chronic illness to impede productivity, this is a very effective automatic program because it helps us succeed. But in a world where chronic illness demands that we avoid exertion and pace our activity, it suddenly becomes very maladaptive.
This kind of subconscious programming can be very difficult to change unless we can bring it into our awareness. And this is what mindfulness teaches. Even if we can’t always access what our subconscious is saying, we can at least notice the signs that we’re doing something automatically. In this case, mindfulness has taught me to notice when I’m starting to push myself — to notice when something is becoming an effort. Once I’m aware, I make a conscious decision to override my autopilot; I choose to rest and finish the task later (and, if I know it’s not going to be today, I put it on my list so I don’t have to waste energy trying to remember it).
The peace that mindfulness meditation offers doesn’t come from an ability to “empty the mind” – far from it. Mindfulness is a skill that enables us to watch our thoughts as they come and go without having to be drawn into a preprogrammed way of responding to them. We can make a choice in the moment as to whether and how to respond to them! The peace comes from the ability to take control over letting go of the thoughts and behaviours that no longer serve us.
Another of the great benefits of mindfulness is that it roots us in the present moment. Once we are rooted in the present moment we can train ourselves to notice and appreciate all the little joys that surround us, which we rarely notice when our minds are mulling over past events or somewhere off in the future. Being routed in the present moment may not seem like such a good idea when you’re present moment involves pain and exhaustion, but often it’s our thoughts about our pain and exhaustion that amplify our suffering. With mindfulness, we can notice those thoughts, decide to dismiss those that aren’t helping, see if there is anything we can do to make ourselves more comfortable and then choose a pleasant form of distraction. It’s all about stress reduction and empowering choice rather than getting carried away with patterns of thoughts and behaviours that are not working for our well-being.
10 Steps to Developing Mindfulness
Become aware of your breathing: Your breath is always there for you and can be used at any moment in time to anchor you in this present moment.
Daily practice: Take a little time each day to practice observing your breathing. Where does your body move? What’s the rhythm like? Fast/slow? Deep/shallow? Can you hear yourself breathing? Can you feel the breath entering or leaving your nostrils? You’re aiming for curious observation without judgement. You’re not trying to extract meaning from its quality, just notice and accept it for just exactly the way it is in this moment, also noticing how it might change from moment to moment.
Accept distractions: Whilst practicing observing your breathing, notice when you get distracted by your thoughts. Don’t worry about it; it’s perfectly natural. You’re not failing if a thought crops up in your mind; just take note of what kind of thought it was and then refocus your attention on your breathing.
The body scan: Spend a little time every day exploring the sensations in each part of your body in turn – again without assigning any kind of positive or negative value to those sensations. Just, what are they like?
Follow your thoughts: Into your daily mindfulness exercise, introduce a few minutes of paying attention to your thoughts instead of your breathing. Observe them come and go like clouds in the sky. You are the sky, your thoughts are just the clouds that drift in and out from time to time. Be curious; what kinds of thoughts are they? Thoughts about the past or the future? Going over past events? Making plans? Comparisons? Wishes? Once you’ve seen what kind of a thought it is, allow it to drift away and see what comes up next. You might suddenly realize you’ve taken up residence in one of those clouds, but as soon as you notice, you can choose to become the sky again (step back into observation mode) and allow the cloud to drift away.
A mindful activity: The next step is to choose one everyday activity like brushing your teeth or making a cup of tea, and each day practice being totally present in that moment, throughout that activity. Notice your position in space, the contact you make with whatever is supporting you, the sensations on the surface of your body, the sensations within your body, what you can see, hear and smell. Curiously observe all the information from your senses.
Here and now: Gradually train your mind to focus on whatever you are doing right now. Engage in it, feel it and enjoy the process. Remind yourself it’s not just a means to an end.
Listen attentively, whether to music, conversation or silence.
Savour your food and drink, taste each mouthful, notice the texture and sensations.
Become an observer: try to notice the sights, sounds, smells and sensations available to you in this moment, whenever you can.
If you’d like more support in your endeavour to become more mindful, Mark Williams and Danny Penman’s book Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Peace in a Frantic World is a great resource.