You lead a busy life. You’re constantly running between tasks, notebook in one hand, iPhone in the other. You’ve probably heard about the benefits of mindfulness and added “Start doing mindfulness” to your ever-growing to-do list. But frankly, who has time to meditate every day, chant in the lotus position or read long books on finding inner calm?
This brilliant handbook is packed with suggestions for ways to help you slow down, refocus and practice a form of mindfulness that actually fits in with your hectic life. Wherever you’re going, whatever you’re doing, you can make these mindfulness techniques a seamless part of your daily routine, without having to put any special time aside for them—and so feel calmer and less stressed—at work, at home, as a parent, in your relationships or when traveling.
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MINDFULNESS-AND WHY YOU SHOULD PRACTICE IT
Only a couple of decades ago few of us had heard of mindfulness, yet today it seems to be the word on everybody's lips, with big companies, sports organizations, hospitals, trade unions and all manner of individuals from tycoons to parents who are teaching or using it.
But one thing that puts many more people off trying out mindfulness is that they are convinced that it will take up more time than they can give to it. They know they are never going to sit and observe their breathing for twenty minutes a day. Indeed, you yourself may even have tried and given up when the busyness of life got in the way.
The good news is, however, that mindfulness is an attitude as well as a practice. And, even better, there are quite short practices that can help you to develop it and enjoy its benefits.
Even in this frantic world, mindfulness practice can give you a sense of spaciousness and a perspective that will help you to see more clearly what needs to be done at work, at home and at play.
So if you have very little time on your hands, but would like to give mindfulness a try, this book is for you. Let's begin with some of the reasons why you might think you can't practice mindfulness.
I CAN'T PRACTICE MINDFULNESS BECAUSE .
. I am too busy to be mindful. Awareness of what is going on right now in an accepting waya key aspect of mindfulnesswon't interfere with your busyness, but it will give you a welcome and valuable sense of calm and self-possession in the middle of it. For instance, glance around the space you're in right now. As you do so, can you put a very light attention on the sensation of your breath as it enters and leaves your nostrils? Let your mind go quiet for a few moments. That's a mindfulness practice, and it takes no more than a few seconds, yet it can help you to lift your head out of the busyness of your day.
. I am too busy to sit and meditate. As its title suggests, this book will show you how to practice mindfulness "on the go." None of the mindfulness practices in the book require you to sit and meditate for lengthy periods. For instance, breathing in to a count of seven and out to a count of eleven (the 7/11 practicesee p. 32) is very calming. It also takes less than half a minute to do. Try it and see.
. I'm a parent of young kidswhere am I supposed to find quiet spaces in my life? That's OK: This book will show you how to practice mindfulness and scream at the kids at the same time! And if you learn to observe their shenanigans without crowding your mind with judgments about themor about yourselfyou might even scream less often. For instance, take a moment right now to notice where in your body you feel a sense of calmness and groundedness. This might be somewhere between your chest and your tummy or it might even be at the tip of your nose. Next time the kids are driving you mad (or you're driving them mad), try to retain an awareness of that center of groundedness.
. I can't do the lotus position and I don't like all this Buddhist stuff, anyway. Mindfulness has nothing to do with the lotus position. People who practice mindfulness in the Buddhist tradition sometimes meditate in that position, but I won't be asking you to do anything like that. Next time you're sitting in a chair, notice the feeling of your back against the back of the chair and of your feet against the soles of your shoes. That's a brief mindfulness practice that doesn't require the lotus position.
. I don't have the time to read long books about mindfulness. That's why, as books go, this is a short one. And it's designed so that you can dip in at any time to ind a mindfulness idea or suggestion you can practice in a way that fits in with a busy lifestyle. For instance, what can you hear right now in your vicinity? Can you listen for about twenty seconds without telling yourself a story about the sounds and without interpreting them? As you do this, if a story or interpretation comes into your mind, return your attention gently to the sounds. That's an example of a mindfulness practice that you can do in a very short period of time (although, as with all the practices in this book, if you want to spend longer periods doing it or if you want to set aside a little time on the weekends for a mindfulness meditation, that's good too).
So now that we've dealt with potential obstacles and established that mindfulness might be for you, let's look at what it actually is and how it is good for you.
WHAT IS MINDFULNESS ANYWAY AND WHY WOULD I WANT TO DO IT?
Think of mindfulness as returning. It's as simpleand as difficultas that. Mindfulness is about returning your attention again and again to whatever is going on for you right nowbut in a special way: without arguing with reality (see "Mindfulness is acceptance"). By dropping that argument you learn to appreciate what is there to be appreciated and you enhance your ability to see what needs to be changed. The benefits are manifold, as I outline below.
Mindfulness is acceptance. I think this is probably the key thing to remember. Most of us ind the concept of acceptance hard to understand. One of its meanings is that you don't use energy complaining to yourself about the things that you can do nothing about right now: it's raining outside or you don't like your job or your spouse is annoying. It is possible to waste vast amounts of energy complaining about things like these. But, ultimately, where does that get you? It doesn't stop the rain from falling, it won't make your job wonderfully exciting and it won't change your spouse's annoying habits.
We spend a lot of our time in a sort of trance, made up of memories, fantasies and other thoughts. This almost always holds us back. Instead, step out of the trance and into direct experience of your reality. If you practice mindfulnessby which I mean, among other things, stepping out of the old stories that your mind wants to tell you and learning to accept things for what they areyou may ruefully note these facts, but you will be less likely to argue with what you cannot change. You will also waste less energy getting stressed and upset about reality. And the extra energythe extra mental space that you get from thatwill make you far more skilled at identifying what is in your control to do.
Try it now. If you have been complaining about something today, something that you cannot change, let the complaining fall away. Instead, put your attention on your breathing, your posture or your actions. Notice what you have just done: you have stepped out of your imaginary world and into the real world (through shifting your attention to breathing and posture). And by the way, that means you're already practicing mindfulness!
Mindfulness lowers stress and anxiety. What's the difference between stress and anxiety? Well, stress can be very short-term. If you're at a game and your side is tied with their opponents, that's stress. In a way, it's an enjoyable kind of stress, even if it doesn't feel like it at the time. But the game ends, your side has survived, lost or won the day with a last-gasp miracle, and then the stress is over.
Anxiety is different. Anxiety can gnaw away at you before the game begins, whether the "game" is a social or work situation or a game of football, and it can keep on gnawing afterward by transferring itself to the next game. Even the most avid fan is unlikely to stay awake at night worrying about those last three minutes of extra time. But he or she might stay awake indulging in anxiety about work, a relationship or health issue.
You will notice the benefits of mindfulness most clearly in relation to stress. Suppose you have five things that you must do and only enough time to do three of them. That, unfortunately, is the way we live today. If you become mindful, let's say, of your breath or your posture as you're working, you may begin to feel different, even though the demands on you have stayed the same. Mindfulness brings a sense of spaciousness, instead of that crowded feeling that can go with the state of being overwhelmed in which so many of us live now. Remember this: Stressing yourself out with negative scenarios will not alter the facts of what you have to do. Mindfulness, however, will help you to avoid adding more unnecessary stress. That, in turn, will beneit both your emotional and your physical health.
A mindful approach to anxiety would be to accept that anxiety comes into every life, even into every day and night. Be willing to experience such anxiety, as it is inevitable, but avoid exaggerating it with the stories you tell yourself about it. This storytelling is sometimes called "catastrophizing" and it can make anxiety far worse than it needs to be.
If you practice mindfulness by making it a part of your day, then your anxiety levels are likely to be far lower than if you had never done so. Mindfulness tends to calm, you could even say cool down, that part of the brain that triggers fightor-flight response and so often exaggerates harmless situations.
Mindfulness means a better approach to handling anger and resentment. These emotions disrupt peace of mind in all of us from time to time, and while mindfulness won't guarantee that you never feel them again (that's impossible in a world in which we so often rub each other the wrong way), if you are mindful you will avoid exaggerating your negative emotions. That's very important, especially in relation to anger.
Here is an example of a mindful approach to emotions: When you feel angry move your attention from your thoughts to how the anger feels in your body. Angry thoughts amplify the emotion of anger. But the physical sensation of anger will die down, as do all physical sensations. So if you practice shifting your attention from your thoughts to what the anger feels like in your body, you give the physical sensation and the anger time to die down. This can bring a lot of peace of mind if you ind that anger and resentment disrupt your life.
Mindfulness boosts creativity. Is mindfulness all about calming stress and emotions? Not at all. It can actually unleash your creativity. For instance, people who value creativity and who practice mindfulness find that their intuition seems to work better. With a clear mind, ideas and solutions seem to come more easily.
There's nothing magical or mystical about this. Your mind often actually comes up with answers, but all too often you cannot hear them because of the chatter going on in your head. To help you visualize this, imagine a small child who knows the answer to a problem that all the adults in the room are discussing in loud, overlapping voices. The child pipes up, but cannot be heard. If you practice mindfulness, the "adults" in your head will quiet down and you will hear what the child is trying to say. That's one of the ways in which mindfulness boosts your chances of coming up with solutions that work. (I will return to this idea in Chapter 10, "Mindfulness at Work," where I talk about mindful planning.)
Moreover, if you're mindful you're less likely to follow old patterns of thought without question. That's important in business, in the home and in all other areas of your life. Some learned habits, like how to ride a bicycle, are really helpful, but others become creativity killers. As you go through this book, you will ind that the practice of mindfulness encourages you to step out of those old habitual patterns.
Mindfulness in sports. Sportsmen and women also value mindfulness. Returning your focus to what is happening in the here and now is not only a fundamental aspect of the practice of mindfulness, it is also a key contributor to success in sports: A golfer who spends the next ive minutes complaining to herself about her bad swing five minutes ago won't get very far in the game; neither will one who spends his time on the course glorying and fantasizing about the victory he hopes to have achieved by the time the game is over. The game takes place in the now and nowhere else.
Mindfulness makes home life better. For many, the home is the busiest place in their lives. Getting back from a day's work to the demands of kids and partners and whoever else might be around can be pretty stressful. That's especially so if you don't get time to kick off your shoes and chill out for a while before you have to get moving again. Mindfulness can help you to stay out of old patterns of reaction when you're on home ground. As we'll see in Chapters 7 and 9, we often navigate through our homes and our relationships simply by resorting to established patterns or old habits that don't serve us very well. But practicing mindfulness enables us to see this happening and to do something about it.
Mindfulness lowers the risk of depression relapse. Depression is an increasingly common experience for many people today. Even if you're lucky enough never to have been depressed, you probably know people who have suffered from this often debilitating condition. Research shows that mindfulness is of great value to people who suffer from recurrent bouts of depression by helping to protect against relapse. You will ind more on this in the chapter on mindfulness and emotional distress.
It will help if you remember all the beneits outlined above as you read through this book and as you bring mindfulness into your life. And there's no need to rush it. Mindfulness is a gentle practice, and although most of the people I teach it to do begin to experience some beneits right away, remember you are trying out a whole new way of engaging with the world. You should, therefore, allow time for the full effects to come through.
In summary: Mindfulness is the practice of returning your attention again and again to what is going on, even if you don't like it, rather than spending time and energy on a struggle with reality. Mindfulness does not change reality directly, but it does change your relationship with it. And in doing that, it changes everything.