Mindfulness is the buzz word of the moment. But the more I talk to people, the more I realise that there are so many who don't have a handle on what it's all really about. What may have once had a reputation as hippy-dippy nonsense is actually a remarkably simple way to live your life in order to maximise your happiness levels and ease your suffering. It's basically what we're all seeking – deep down – a way to find joy in everyday life instead of always waiting for that elusive day that never comes.
Do you often feel stressed, anxious or like your life is out of control? Ever felt like you were sleepwalking through your life, or waiting for it to start? Then living a more mindful life could be exact what you need to take back the reins of your life and to start afresh. The sad truth is that many of us are only ever 10% present in our own lives. The rest of the time we spend overthinking the past and worrying about the future. How can we ever enjoy and live a moment fully when we're always obsessing over the myriad of ways things could, or have, gone wrong?
Why I've decided to share this post now
This was actually a post I originally wrote around six years ago. Mindfulness is a topic I've always been interested in and I love to share wellbeing techniques that have helped me. Over the last few years, I've devoted a lot of time to reading and learning on the topic. I've actually just finished a 10-week online course on The Science of Wellbeing with Yale University, so it seemed a perfect time to share all the things I've learned over the years and how they've worked for me. Particularly in the last two years, I've found that mindfulness and meditation have really helped me to overcome some of the worst times of my life.
Now that we're locked down because of Coronavirus, it seems a perfect time to really turn our attentions inwards and focus on what our bodies and minds really need. What's that saying – "when we can't go out, let's turn inward." So whether you're already practicing mindfulness and want to develop your skills further, or you've never heard of it before. My beginner's guide to mindfulness is just what you need to get started and take the first steps towards the life you want to be living.
Living with purpose – What is mindfulness?
If your goal is to live a more mindful life, it means incorporating small changes that will, over time, lead to a happier life, and a happier you. It's a choice to being more intentional in our decisions, reactions and choices so that we are living with purpose instead of aimlessly drifting through life. It can be uncomfortable at first – after all, we are breaking up with the way we have been told to live our lives for centuries. We live in a capitalist society that is designed to pray on our insecurities in order to monetise them. But unfortunately that means we are constantly reaching for something just beyond our grasp and often, it's things like money, or materialist goods which don't actually make us happy.
Mindfulness is reaching a level of self-awareness with these thought processes and toxic behaviours. It's using techniques to rise above them and to reach a level of contentment within yourself. The closer you get, the more you can squash negative thought patterns such as worry, anxiety and stress. Instead of being reactive and overly emotional in our responses to situations, it gives us the ability to step back and breathe. It means taking back control of your mind, your thoughts and your life.
Why make meditation and mindfulness part of your daily routine?
I could speak for hours on this topic, but instead, I'll keep it short and sweet. Here are my top 5 reasons why you should make mindfulness and meditation part of your daily routine:
- They make you happier and more contented.
- They help reduce anxiety, worry and stress
- Improved mental health and physical health
- Living a healthier lifestyle and sleeping better
- Gives you back control of your live and thoughts
15 easy ways to live a more mindful life
Remind yourself to be in the present moment
This is the core teaching of mindfulness – always return to the present moment because there is nothing else. It sounds big and dramatic at first. But what it really means is there is no point worrying about the future or obsessing over the past. I know so many of us are guilty of doing this – myself included! But that's okay, we're only human! The trick is, you need to be aware of when you are doing it and the goal is to recognise this behaviour and to bring yourself back to the present moment.
This is actually the goal of meditation – to always clear your mind and return to the present. It's something that is a work in progress for everyone but the more aware you become, the easier it is. Start simply by allowing your thoughts to wander, then noting what you are doing, kindly guide yourself back to the present. It's a great exercise for those prone to overthinking – to recognise when you are doing this and gently guide yourself away from this behaviour.
Clear your mind and breathe
Leading on from the previous point – a great way to keep yourself in the present moment is to focus on your breath. Meditation is basically a practice of mindfulness, to focus on the breath as the only thing you have control over. Therefore it is the only thing to focus on – empty your mind of all other thoughts and you are in the present moment. Pure as it is, this goal doesn't last long for most of us, especially those just beginning. Meditation can be one of the most frustrating things in the world. But when you get it just right, wow it can be one of the most transforming experiences.
If you're new to meditation and don't know where to start, why not try a guided meditation? There are loads available via apps like Headspace and Calm, or search for them on Spotify podcasts. If you're not sure if it's for you – why not try going to a class? Sometimes it can really help at first to have the community feel and someone to guide you. Just remember – you don't have to be perfect at it, you don't have to become a guru overnight. You don't even need to do it for any length of time – just 10 minutes a day can make a big difference.
Really and truly listen, with no distractions
I read somewhere that we're only ever 10% actually present with our lives and the people in them. How incredibly sad is that? All those people that we love so much and we only ever give them such a tiny part of ourselves. Remember, what you put into a relationship is also what you get out of it, so think about what we could be missing out on. Listening is one of the greatest skills you can have. It can transform our relationships and connections with those around us, if only we let it.
The truth is, most of the time when we think we're listening, we're actually just planning what we're going to say next. We take in various pieces of information and put them together like a jigsaw to make up our version of what the person has said. But we could all do with putting our phones down and really listening to what our friends and family are saying.
Slow things down – stop rushing
This is something that I know I have been guilty of in the past, always rushing from one thing to another, always busy. We live in a culture where it's cool to be seen as busy all the time – it's our currency for how we value our success. But what if we all just stopped. If we just took a moment to breathe and take it all in? If you feel like you never have enough time in a day, or that you never feel satisfied no matter how much you accomplish. Perhaps you are focusing on the wrong things.
In fact, you're focusing on doing all the things instead of picking carefully what you put your energy into. It all comes down to choosing achievable goals, setting boundaries and not being afraid to pause and ask yourself, whether something is bringing joy or peace into your life. If the answer is no, you need to question whether it has any value in your life anymore. But the only way to know, is to slow down and stop rushing.
Connect with your thoughts and feelings
Ask yourself – how am I? Take the time to check in with yourself and how you are feeling. We don't do this enough. It's easy for life to get in the way and things to get busy. But we're always asking others how they are doing – what could be more important than checking in with yourself? This is especially important when it comes to healing and growing as a person. If you don't take the time to address your own problems and feelings, to identify why you are feeling this way. If you don't take the time to do the necessary work needed to grow as an individual – you can't ever hope to be truly happy. Not doing the work is living in denial and it means you're likely to keep repeating the same toxic behavioural patterns.
Take in your surroundings
A big part of mindfulness is taking in your surroundings, engaging your senses and really being present in a moment. A great way to do this is to take a walk and leave your phone behind. Instead of distracting yourself with a podcast or audiobook, listen to the birds sing and the wind in the trees. Smell the summer barbecues wafting on the breeze, watch the light pooling through the trees.
Why not start by taking a walk on your lunch break each day? 15-20 minutes of sunlight daily can have a huge affect on your mood. Don't let yourself give in to distractions of modern technology or other people, leave your phone in the office. Sometimes you just need time alone to be in nature – that's why nature is the world's best healer. I know I always feel a million times better after a visit to the ocean or a walk in the forest. If you're someone who struggles with feeling anxious or stressed – this could make a world of difference.
Practice gratitude daily
This one is simple but can be a game-changer for changing your mindset and helping you become more positive. If your negative emotions and worries often take over your brain. Implementing this daily can have a huge impact on your mental health. Each morning when you wake up, or each evening before you go to sleep, list 3 things you are grateful for that day. They can be small things like the sun shining, or someone holding a door open for you. Or getting top marks in an exam. It could be bigger worldwide things like seeing huge acts of kindness or the work of amazing charities or the NHS. Even discovering someone who inspires you. However big or small, write these down and focus on them for a few minutes.
Acts of kindness
A big part of mindfulness and staying in the present moment is becoming more aware of the place you hold in the world. This means increasing your own self-awareness and realising the impact you have on others. A great way to become more aware of this is by performing random acts of kindness. This could be a thoughtful gesture like sending a supportive message to someone you know is struggling. Or helping a stranger with their shopping bags. It could even be something wider like holding a fundraiser to support an important cause. Whatever you choose to do, watch for the ripple effect after. See how that positivity and kindness spreads beyond your action. Being in the moment means you pay attention to the world around you and recognise when there are opportunities for kindness.
Put your phone away
Mobile phones have brought a new level of connection into our lives. But as someone who was actually around before they existed. I can also say that they have brought endless, unhealthy distraction into every waking moment. Their presence in our lives can cause various problems including interrupting our sleep, which is one of many factors that can lead to anxiety and stress. If you want to reduce these problems and live a more mindful life, it's easy – put your phone away!
Why not try having phone-free mornings and evenings for the first and last-hour of the day? It will give you a chance to start the day peacefully without letting the rest of the world in. And it will give you a chance to wind down for the night without exposure to blue light which can affect your sleep.
Start practicing yoga
Let me stress that yoga is not compulsory for living a mindful life. It is perfectly possible to practice mindfulness daily without ever setting foot in a yoga studio. I know yoga isn't for everyone, but it has been documented as having a huge impact on the mental health and mindset of a lot of people. Myself included – a few years ago I had never even tried yoga and now I can't go more than a few days without it. Yoga is all about concentrating on the breath and the present moment. It's all about stretching the body and opening it up to the world around you, while focusing inward.
There are lots of different types of yoga. From slower and more relaxing styles that lead nicely into meditation, to more powerful practices. The best way to really see if you like yoga is to attend a class. I also am a strong believer that having a great yoga teacher is a huge part of finding a flow that works for you. So if you don't find you gel with it immediately, don't be afraid to try a different class and see if you prefer it. If you hate the idea of a class – why not try Yoga with Adrian or Sjana Elise Youtube channels for yoga videos you can follow along with.
Savour the food you eat
When was the last time you ate something and really savoured the flavours? Can you think of a time when you were really present in the moment and tasted how fresh the dish was? When you lost yourself in the rich and decadent desserts, a fresh, zesty fruit, or a creamy and aromatic dish. The truth is, it was probably a while ago. It's so easy, when life is so busy, to forget to take the time to just eat and enjoy. Instead we're constantly multitasking. Eating while replying to emails, wolfing down a sandwich between meetings or throwing together dinner after a busy day.
Sometimes it's necessary, but we need to remember to not live like this all the time. After all – food is one of life's greatest pleasures. If you ask me – the Italian and Spanish cultures have a great attitude towards food. It's a celebration of the senses and a time for socialising. A time when they slow things down and draw things out as long as possible. Try turning the TV off when you eat, why not dine outside on a summer evening? Focus on your food and eat slowly, enjoying each bite.
Focus on your senses
If you're feeling like your thoughts are always drifting and you're constantly lapsing into the past or future. Try reminding yourself at different points throughout the day to focus on your senses. It only takes a few seconds, but can be a great reminder to stay focused on the present. Think about what you can smell, hear, taste, touch and see. If you're feeling stressed or worried, it can be a great way to centre yourself and to focus on the moment.
If you're feeling overwhelmed with life's problems – just stop and ask yourself. Is there anything wrong in this exact moment? It can be just the reminder you need that actually all of life's problems exist in overthinking the past, or worrying about the future. This new perspective can really help you to gain perspective and to tackle one problem at a time.
Change your routine or travel
One of the things that made me so focused on living a mindful life was travel. I could see how when I was travelling – I was truly living in the moment and appreciating every second. I was grateful for those around me, the food I was eating and mindfulness came naturally to me. Even if you don't travel long-term – we'll all have been on those holidays where you're fully in the moment. You're not thinking about anything back at home. Experiencing life in this way for extended periods of time made me all the more determined to try and keep living this way even if I returned home. I saw how much happier and more content I was when I kept this mindset.
If travel isn't an option for you, or you want a way to maintain staying present even when at home. Why not try mixing up your routine? This is essentially what keeps us present when we travel – it's the constant newness of the world around us. When we slip into the same old routine, we drift through life so easily that we forget to pay attention to our surroundings. This is why they say "if you think adventure is dangerous, try routine, it's lethal!". Try applying this to your own life – take a different route to work each day, tale a walk somewhere new, visit a place you've never been before. Throw yourself outside of your comfort zone and watch how present you become.
Prioritise self-care more often
Actually, everything on this list is a form of self-care and all are equally important. But another great way to be present with yourself is to take care of yourself. Things like making sure you are sleeping enough, eating healthily and drinking enough water. Self-care means different things to different people – for some it might mean spending time alone with candles and bubble baths. For others it might mean going to bed earlier, or waking up for the sunrise. Or it might mean saying no to nights out or situations that make you feel uncomfortable.
By prioritising self-care, you are focusing on yourself in the present moment and what your needs are. Try listening to your body's needs more. You could either set aside a small amount of time each day to focus on you. Or if this is tricky around family/work life, why not set aside one evening a week that is just about you?
Lose yourself in your passions
You know that feeling when you completely lose yourself in your work, or a hobby? When you suddenly realise you've been working away for hours on a project without eating, drinking or stopping for a break. It's a great example of when you are truly present in the moment. This is why it's so important that even if you don't have a job you're really passionate about, that you make time for passions. It could be writing, knitting, volunteering, gardening, photography or building things. Whatever it is – we all need something we can lose ourselves in and be completely present.
How to change your habits long-term
If you really want to change your life – and this applies to anything whether it is mindfulness, a healthier diet or exercise. You need to maintain the changes for a length of time until they become a natural part of your routine. Breaking the old habits and replacing them with new ones is the hardest part. Once you've done this, it becomes easy to maintain the new lifestyle. Here are my top 5 ways to make sure you stick to your new routine:
- Share your goals and make others hold you accountable – whether through social media, friends or family
- Set reminders in your phone to meditate, take a walk or savour your meals
- Keep a journal and record your daily mindfulness activities and practice gratitude
- Leave sticky notes around your home to remind you – "SAVOUR" on the fridge, "MEDITATE" by your bed etc
- Set achievable goals and regularly review these to see when you have successes
But, what if you fail?
The important thing to remember is that there is no failure when it comes to mindfulness and meditation. Each are individual practices that are unique to you. Only you can make you do them and only you will feel the results. This is why it can be hard to maintain them sometimes and when we get busy, they are often the first things to slip. But always remember that what you prioritise in your life will have a big effect on your mental health and wellbeing. So if you always prioritise work, you may feel exhausted and unhealthy because your diet and sleep suffer. Life is all about finding a balance that works for you.
So stop looking at others and feeling like what you're doing (or not doing) is not enough. Some people might need to practice yoga seven days a week to feel good. You might just need to do it once to feel great. Others might keep a gratitude journal that makes them feel centred and in control, while you might find it totally cringe. Everyone finds their own way with mindfulness and there is no right or wrong answer. So just experiment with it – this post is just full of ideas that you can try. Why not try implementing one or two of them daily to begin with and see whether it makes you feel better.
Do you practice mindfulness or meditation daily? What are your favourite mindfulness techniques? What makes you feel better and more in control?