Do you want less pressure and more balance? Less anxiety and more calm? Less distractions and more clarity? Less stress and more joy?
There is a way to achieve this and it's through mindfulness.
What is mindfulness?
In his book "Why Can't I Meditate?" psychoanalytic psychotherapist Nigel Wellings defines mindfulness as "being consciously aware of what is happening in and around us in the present moment" and "meeting this moment with acceptance, kindness and compassion." It is about being "fully present with our experience" and "seeing the true nature of how things really are without adding anything extra."
The modern problem.
Some of us suffer anxiety, find it difficult to sleep, are having health issues caused by stress and are overwhelmed by the daily grind. Our modern culture puts pressure on us to prioritise external "success" and attain "perfect" lives and we're extremely self-critical when we don't achieve it. We look to self-medicate with alcohol, prescription drugs, shopping, anything that will help us to avoid the feelings of failure, anxiety, loneliness and emptiness. By the end of the working week, we fall into bed in a heap, completely exhausted, waiting for the weekends to come around and on Sunday, feeling dread because we have to go through it all again.
I should know, I've been through many versions of this through most of my adult life. In fact, I suffered a nervous breakdown in my mid-20s, overworked and emotionally exhausted, I quit my corporate job in consumer finance and went on a mission to find more meaningful work. From there I began a journey towards mindfulness that continues to this very day.
While many of my friends were climbing the corporate ladder, I decided to climb back down, to the horror of my parents who couldn't understand why I would throw away a "good job" that paid well and seemed to offer lots of "freedom." I remember explaining to them that it wasn't for me. To be truthful, I was totally lost. I felt very suffocated by my corporate job and the four weeks of annual leave I was entitled to just wasn't enough. By then I had been a rat in the rat race for a total of 5 years. Not very long in the grand scheme of things, but enough for me to learn it wasn't what I wanted.
It was also the beginning of the demise of my relationship. Actually it was probably the first time I had acknowledged honestly to myself that the relationship was not what I wanted.
Why I embraced slow living.
For a couple of years I tried to find more meaning, in my work and in my life. But it took ending an 8 year relationship, the courage to pursue the right one and a drastic change in scenery and a move to a rural setting to help me realise how destructive my "autopilot" was. It was two years after my "mid-20s crisis."
I was conditioned to be goal-oriented, to work hard and to define success in materialistic terms. It never occurred to me to be anything but driven. For me, slowing down was out of the question. Looking "within" was definitely something I would have classified as feel-good, mumbo jumbo. It just wasn't "me." It didn't help that my peers - including some type A best friends - were doing the exact same thing.
When I moved away from the city, I had more time to reflect and I began to peel away the conditioning of our modern society. I realised that there was a much better way, a healthier way. I began to relax, to prioritise what was important to me and I began to practise mindfulness. I learned to pay attention, I became more present in the moment and I was able to recognise my unhealthy habits.
I learned to be more tolerant, less judgemental, became kinder to myself, was able to reduce my OCD tendencies and found work in the not-for-profit sector helping our most vulnerable and disadvantaged.
I also became more grateful and found joy in the simple things: my good health, spending quality time with my partner, strengthening relationships with friends and family, growing food, breathing in fresh country air and pursuing activities that I loved such as reading and writing.
I had finally found myself.
What the research tells us.
That mindfulness works. Here's what the studies show:
- In a 2012 Harvard study, researchers found that participating in an 8 week mindfulness program improved emotional stability and response to stress.
- A study by UCLA found that long-term meditators had better-preserved brains than non-meditators as they aged.
- A 2014 John Hopkins study found that mindful meditation had the ability to reduce depression, anxiety and pain, an effect equivalent to that of taking antidepressants.
- Greg Flaxman and Lisa Flook in their paper "Brief Summary of Mindfulness Research" finds many examples of research studies that prove the beneficial effects of mindful practice including its ability to strengthen romantic and familial relationships.
How do we incorporate mindful meditation into our busy lives?
Meditation is a universal practice that helps us to connect with our inner being. It has nothing to do with organised religion or dogma, but is merely a way of helping us to focus the mind. It is also freely accessible - you can do it anytime, anywhere.
But to obtain its benefits, we need to make time for it.
Over the years I have practised meditation and breathing exercises as a way of relaxing and overcoming stress. Sometimes just 10 minutes a day. Other times a whole hour. Usually before I go to bed.
I won't lie, during meditation I do get distracted by my many thoughts but then I gently nudge my focus back to my breathing. Often thoughts appear but I don't judge myself when they do. I just return my focus on my breathing and they tend to float away again.
Don't get me wrong, I haven't perfected mindfulness by any means. I am still a deep thinker and my ego is very loud and always wants to be heard. But I just keep returning to my breathing, inhaling and exhaling. Our minds love to keep busy but once you learn to tame it by focussing on your breath, mindfulness really does become easier.
When I finish meditation, I always feel more aware of my surroundings, more aware of myself, more at peace however I haven't completely mastered it yet. Mindfulness takes years of practice, decades even. Just like exercise, this is a habit that needs to be cultivated, preferably every day.
While there are times when I return to my old ways of thinking too much, doing too much, working too much (case in point, my ethical digital agency) I remind myself that my current experience is now born out of mindful choices. Then I practice yoga and mindful meditation and learn to let it go all over again.
Do you still need convincing? Watch this awesome Ted Talk for more inspiration.
Now over to you: have you had a similar experience? What does mindfulness mean to you? How do you practice mindfulness in your day-to-day life? Feel free to leave a comment below.