I won't try pleasing all, but this is an area which resonates strongly with me personally. Over the last year meditation practice has become an integral part of my life with tremendous impact on my health and wellbeing. This article gives my personal view of mindfulness and the benefits of regular meditation.
What is mindfulness?
This weekend I came across a comment on social media in which someone complained about mindfulness not working for him. It is a strange thing to say. You see, mindfulness is about gently focussing your mind on a present moment, like noticing beautiful golden leaves paving streets this time of year or appreciating the warmness of a mug of tea you are holding, reading this blog, or concentrating on brushing your teeth and not allowing your mind to wander forward, mentally composing a ‘to-do’ list for the day. I used the word “gently” because if you force your mind to focus on brushing your teeth whilst it is determined to get on with the 'to-do' list, you’ll experience frustration, not mindfulness. Mindfulness is about being present 'here and now', not being 'a million miles away'.
Mindfulness is a way to declutter your mind. Read that again: “declutter your mind”. When I do it, I can feel my shoulders tensing up and my breathing becoming shallow - for me it’s synonymous with feeling stressed. For others, a busy mind may be associated with feeling anxious, preoccupied, “I can’t think”, “I can’t focus”, “I need a cigarette”.
With a clearer mind, we feel happier, calmer, we are better company at home and at work, we are more creative and productive. Mindfulness also helps healing, be it resting after a half marathon or recovering from pneumonia. Let me explain this a bit more scientifically.
The peripheral nervous system of our bodies, which controls such functions as digestion, breathing and heart rate, has a division, called the autonomic nervous system or involuntary nervous system. It regulates unconscious actions of our bodies. It has two divisions: sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system stimulates the ‘fight-or-flight’ response. When a tiger is chasing you, this system may just save your life. The parasympathetic nervous system regulates our ‘rest-and-digest’ activities. Once you’ve escaped the tiger, it’s time to lick your wounds and recover.
The problem is that modern lifestyle encourages the sympathetic nervous system to respond too often. We are constantly aroused by beeping phones, Facebook notifications, bosses sending brisk emails and marketing newsletters shouting “buy now”, “don’t miss”, “last chance”, etc. If you have just been for a long run, you need to rest and let the parasympathetic nervous system do its job. If after a run, you have a quick shower, grab a sandwich on-the-go, gulp an espresso, your body is still fighting that tiger. One day the stress spiral may escalate to wreck havoc on your body and brain. Anything can happen with your immune system weakened. Feeling permanently tired is one example, getting a CFS/ME is another.
As you see, it is easy to lose the precarious balance of a healthy functioning autonomic system. The good news is that practising mindfulness, noticing small things like catching a child’s smile or admiring droplets of dew on blueberries and even paying attention to your dental routine helps to soothe our nervous system and restore balance.
Equally, focussing on my teeth for two minutes or even the pretty leaves or blueberries is not something I am able to do. Perhaps, this is why the best way to de-clutter your head is meditation: it is a unique method to focus your mind on something simple: the rhythm of your breath, an image or a sense of touch.
What is meditation?
Meditation is a process during which you are gently quietening your mind. Think about it like a dog on a leash: it might be excited or angry and pulling away from you in different directions. You are trying to gently pull your pet towards you until it sits down and rests in peace. The fans of Philip Pullman novels can imagine their minds resembling dæmons.
A great introduction to meditation is an app called Headspace. It was developed for people who want to learn to meditate without having to read a book on Daoism or spending a month in an ashram. It’s a simple, guided way to give yourself a break, to have a 'power nap' without falling asleep or feeling groggy afterwards, to have an energising gym session without breaking a sweat. 10-minutes sessions are free and you can replay them as many times as you want. You are then offered to subscribe to access the full Headspace programme which has thousands of 20-minute sessions guided by Andy Puddicombe, focussing on stress, creativity, health, heart etc so it’s never dull, sometimes a little challenging and always soothing.
I have been meditating for 20 minutes every other day or so for a year now. It is a great tool for me to recharge my batteries when I am feeling tired or to calm down when I am stressed. When I was trekking in Nepal in spring, I meditated every afternoon, and it was wonderful. It is ironic that when I need it most (hectic pre-Christmas period), I often tell myself I don’t have the time to meditate. Alas, humans do not always act rationally.
I cannot pretend I am an expert in either meditation or mindfulness but I am a big fan. Regular meditation brings in mindfulness to everyday life so I do notice smiles, leaves and blueberries more often now. Meditation sessions help me recover from ME by switching on the parasympathetic nervous system when I need to rest. I have become calmer, I worry less, I get wound up not quite so frequently, and I have accomplished a hell of a lot over the past 12 months, my health issues notwithstanding.
I hope this article has been useful, and I welcome any feedback. It goes without saying that I do not have any commercial affiliation with Headspace. I pay for my subscription, and I am a grateful fan.