Sometimes, when something gets heavily commodified or undergoes a sudden surge in popularity - like mindfulness has in recent years - its fundamental purpose can get a little lost in translation.
Perhaps you’ve seen people raving about ‘zen’ in the media, or heard from your friends or peers about how they’ve tried it and felt immediately soothed. Maybe they’ve told you all about this incredible peace they’ve felt, or perhaps you’ve scrolled past some of the millions of #mindfulliving posts on Instagram.
What all of these external factors can often amount to in us is a feeling of expectation. So we go into mindfulness with these expectations of zen, and soothing, and our experience just doesn’t live up to those expectations.
So you grow frustrated with it, you walk away from it, and you don’t try it again.
If you can relate to that last paragraph, good. I’m writing this for you. Because you’re just as capable as tapping into the health benefits of mindfulness as anyone else is. Let’s try and ‘reset’ what we think about when we think about mindfulness, and try and check some of those expectations at the door…
Mindfulness isn’t a magic pill we can swallow to make everything better. Yes, it can be very useful for anxiety, depression and stress management - but it really is just a mental health tool, and it takes practice to cultivate and develop.
Mindfulness isn’t something that you can expect ‘quick wins’ from. Similar to how you won’t get instantly toned arms from your first 20 push-ups, you won’t tap into all of the benefits of mindfulness in your first session.
But in the same way just doing 20 push-ups can release endorphins, increase blood flow and still have a good short-term positive impact, your early attempts at mindfulness have wide-ranging benefits too - even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time.
Mindfulness isn’t just about meditation. You can be mindful as you go about your daily life. You can be mindful about the food that you put in your mouth, the songs you listen to, or how you talk to people day-to-day. Meditation and breath work is a more formal practice of mindfulness, but it’s something that can be practiced and cultivated at all times.
There are two key things I share with my clients before they try mindfulness for the first time. The first is to understand that when you try meditating, thoughts and stories will enter your mind. It will happen. It happens for everyone.
The second thing is to go easy on yourself when those thoughts do enter, and to be kind to yourself. Mindfulness isn’t an exercise in blocking out your thoughts - it’s about noticing them, and letting them drift past.
Once you’ve accepted and got your head around all of the above and feel ready to give mindfulness another chance, just start small. It could be as little as just taking three slow breaths - a deep inhale, a slow exhale - and just noticing how your body feels. And then build that up - five breaths the next day, then 10, then five minutes, then 10 minutes, and so on.
Then there’s how you meditate. The stereotypical image of meditating might be someone sitting cross-legged on a cushion in the middle of their carpet - but that doesn’t mean that’s how you have to do it. If sitting down doesn’t work for you, go for a walk without your phone and note the colour of the trees, the cars, the street. Stand up and feel your feet on the floor. Rest against a wall and notice the parts of your back that touch it. Find a way that works for you.
If letting go of all of the expectations is the biggest thing you can do to help you on your mindfulness journey, the second biggest is probably remember that mindfulness isn’t about focusing on your mind. I think a lot of people can make that mistake, and that’s when those thoughts can often come pouring in.
Mindfulness is about focusing on and paying attention to your body: noticing your breath, some tingles in your feet, maybe a nice warm fuzzy feeling, maybe some discomfort or pain in your body. It’s about noticing that sensation in the body and letting it go. Feel how you occupy space in the world - your height (head to toes), your breadth (side to side) and your depth (front to back). That’s all it is, and that is the gateway to developing awareness to the here and now, to your own presence.
Ultimately, the practice of mindfulness helps you develop your ‘inner witness’. It’s about you recognising yourself, and that you are not your thoughts and emotions, you are not your situation, you are you.
Just being able to name your feelings, and notice them, and pay attention to where they’re coming from and where they’re going - that can give you the ability to respond from a place filled with calm and possibility. It can allow you to take back some control. Particularly in our current climate, I think that’s pretty helpful.
Like anyone, I often find myself thinking or feeling things that I don’t necessarily like. But now that I’ve been cultivating and practicing my mindfulness for so long, I am better able to catch them, recognise them for what they are, and let them go.
I think Victor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist, said it best when he said: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.”
So go on. Be kind to yourself, take it at your own pace, and don’t expect too much. Mindfulness might just work for you after all.