Mindfulness – Informal Practices
In the 3rd part of this mini-series on reducing stress and anxiety, I'll talk about how developing a personal Mindfulness practice can really help with healing and freeing ourselves from the worries and negative chatter in our minds. Mindfulness has many different definitions but simply put, it's a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment. This state of being alive and whole in the present moment is always available, but it typically eludes us, especially in times of difficulty and external pressures which is why the actual ‘practice' part is so vital to cultivate that ability to ‘just be here…right now'.
There are two main forms of practice, a formal practice which involves meditation and usually a focus on the body, breath, sensations or whatever arises in that moment and informal practice which is brings awareness and attention to everyday life. Within those 2 categories there are many different techniques and strategies – you have an entire Mindfulness toolkit at your disposal and it's really about finding what works for you in terms of the formal practice, the informal practice is accessible to you in each and every moment, regardless of what you might be doing and that's what I'll focus on today.
For many years I suffered and struggled from stress and social anxiety which I largely covered up either through the use of excessive alcohol, marijuana use or just pursuing solitary interests and staying within a very small circle of close friends that I felt comfortable with. I won't say they were my ‘best' days but I did have a lot of fun times, at least I think I did as I can barely remember large chunks of those years.
Live In The Now
One great thing Mindfulness teaches us is to live in the present moment – the past has been and gone and there is nothing we can do about it, no regrets as those experiences made me the person I am today so I am grateful for ‘almost' all my teachings along the way. The future is also not worth having stress or anxiousness about because we never really know what is going to happen, no matter how much we plan or set goals, life has a habit of throwing us curveballs and not working out quite how we expected anyway, sometimes we can be disappointed but often we can be pleasantly surprised. To let go of any expectation and being open to the experience, regardless of what it might be, can be very liberating.
By simply living moment-to-moment it enriches your experience of life and all the beauty that surrounds us, that we often take for granted. We can become so caught up in plans, tasks, to-do lists, repetitive chores, work, exercise, eating, shopping, cleaning…it can seem that there is no end to the ‘busyness' of our lives. When we just slow down, really slow down and take 5 minutes just to breathe, or take 10 minutes to perform Tai-Chi, or take 20-30 minutes to perform a body-scan meditation, or take an hour drawing, painting or pursuing an interest or hobby that we can get lost in a state of flow – these ‘practices' can create space in between the busyness and help us to bring a state of Mindfulness so those ‘chores' become far less arduous – yes, even washing up…trust me!
In my last rented flat we had a dishwasher BUT when my partner Justine and I moved into our own place here in Glasgow a few years ago, our kitchen was a bit of a mess – it's tidier now but it's on the final list of ‘renovations' that need looking at…so, no dishwasher currently. Now, I admit that I never used to be a fan of ‘manual' washing-up and although Justine might say it was because I didn't like to get my hands dirty, I always feel it was because deep down I knew the damage Fairy Liquid and the like was doing to my hands, my lungs, my skin etc 🙂 It's amazing when you start researching the ingredients on ‘popular' brands of washing up how much c**p is actually in those products and I urge everyone to use plant-based alternatives, but that's a chat for another day!
Now though, since discovering Mindfulness and a plant-based Grapefruit Washing-Up liquid, I totally love washing up. You really know you have arrived in Mindfulness when you can express gratitude to each piece of food matter that you wipe away from a dirty plate and enjoy the process haha! I used to think washing-up was a chore, a waste of time when I could be doing something FAR more interesting – like watching Game of Thrones mindfully! However, now I will just really look forward to the time spent in front of the sink and am actually mindfully ‘discussing' with Justine whether we actually need a dishwasher in our new kitchen that we are planning on this year. The gratitude comes from the fact that these dishes, cups and cutlery have all served a part in nourishing us, in feeding us, giving us vitality and good health so why not respect them by cleaning them well, washing them and giving thanks to them?
It's also about making the environment pleasant to be around, not just with the washing-up liquid but colourful plates and cups, a rubber ducky washing-up brush and colourful drying towels. All of these little touches add to the experience and this is just washing-up, imagine what you can do with other areas of your life…brushing teeth is a very popular one as we do this twice a day, or at least I hope you do, and just slowing down and feeling the sensations and taking at least a minimum of 2 minutes, is not only good for our teeth and gum health but allows us two minutes just to focus on brushing our teeth, not worrying about work, or what we have to do next…but right NOW…simply focusing on each stroke or each sensation of the electric toothbrush in each of the areas of our mouth.
Cloud & Duck Meditations
It's not just about slowing down though, that is part of it, but it's simply bringing focused awareness and attention to our current surroundings. My favourite two meditations are Cloud Meditation and Duck Meditation, can you see a theme here? Cloud meditation is usually only performed by people when they are in a plane but cast your mind back to when you were a child, lying on the grass, looking up in awe on a clear day and being amazed by clouds. Remember that feeling of initial joy and wonder and bring that to simply looking at the sky on a clear (or cloudy day) and marvelling in all the different shapes of the clouds, the textures, the colours, the spaces of blue (or grey) in between the clouds, the lengths, how they move and float…of course don't try this if driving or riding a bike but simply take a glance up while walking, or sit on a bench, or simply stop and look up…it's funny how many other people look up when you are but it can also make us realise our place in this universe, the sheer expanse of the world that we are in and it can make some our worries seem very small indeed as well as bringing a real appreciation of nature. Having this ‘beginners mind' in all our day-to-day experiences really helps cultivate and embody the practice of mindfulness.
“Treat every moment as your last. It is not preparation for something else.”
― Shunryu Suzuki,
Next time you look at a duck pond, yes ducks again, just look at how mindful they are. I often go to Kelvingrove Park here in Glasgow or walk along the River Kelvin, observing, noticing and paying close attention to ducks. Often you will see them just drifting along, very calmly, living in the moment…now occassionally you might see a duck snap at another ones tail, but pretty much straight away its forgotten and they are drifting away again…they don't go looking for revenge or beating themselves up about it…they just get on with living in the present moment…there is much we can learn from ducks if we ourselves simply take the time to observe them. Animals are great to simply watch, whether it be a cat, dog, birds, squirrels – just take time to observe their behaviour when out in nature. Simply being out in nature and looking at trees, plants, flowers, snow, rain – all of these are marvels of nature and are deserving of our focused attention.
There are massive health benefits to mindfully eating as well, if we take our time to really chew 20 or 30 times with each mouthful of food, we are not only aiding our digestion process which starts in the mouth, but we also get full quicker and can bring a true sense of gratitude for each act and piece of work that has brought that food, often from plant or seed, through the earth, with water, sunlight – through the farm and the workers and all the way onto our plate. When we consume natural, organic, real fruit and vegetables, or wild-caught fish or grass-feed meat – we are consuming an entire universe within each mouthful and so much effort and work that has gone into it being delivered to our plates to help nourish us. Now, this doesn't count with McDonald's or fast/processed foods and in fact when you bring a mindful attention to what you eat, and how it gives us health and vitality, you will WANT to stop eating junk or processed food. I see mealtime as a real treat to be explored, to be grateful for and to try to bring a unique experience each and every time, rather than wolfing it down as a means to an end as I see so many people doing. Really focus on the textures, the colours, the taste, the fragrance…basically engage all your senses to the wonderful joy of eating.
A daily practice is perhaps the most important component. You wouldn’t expect to learn to surf by reading a book about surfboards and waves, and learning a mindfulness practice is no different from any other skill that involves both mind and body. You know from your own experience in learning to play an instrument, or a sport, or any complex skill whatsoever, that practice is important. Your body/mind is the most complex instrument in the universe. It takes time and practice to use it effectively and harmoniously but the rewards are limitless and can free us from stress and anxiety in our life.