Everyone is talking about mindfulness these days. There are experts telling us how to meditate, and countless apps that give us the recipes in the form of recorded music, guided meditations and how-to videos to help us find our way. We download white noise to keep us focused when the world around us is too loud and in your face.There is an element of mindfulness that I believe to be deeply spiritual. Regardless of what you believe, or which denomination you practice. It’s a state of being that is universal, found deep within us, that crosses all borders, speaks all languages, and connects all things.Spiritual and religious traditions aside, I believe that the practice of meditation and mindfulness can be formal and informal. A little bit like exercise – you can schedule time to do it, or you can invite it into your day incidentally, and eventually you don’t even realise your doing it.I’ve been practicing mindfulness and meditation since I was a teenager. Without realising that’s what I was doing, it was something I did that relieved me of stress, made me feel calm, helped me focus and lured me into sleep. Maybe it was just my inner introvert taking over, but I never sat down and intentionally meditated. I just sat in the quiet, sometimes played some soft instrumental music, and let myself be.Over the years I learned to bring that calm, quiet and focused approach to things like sweeping the floor, ironing my clothes, stacking the dishwasher, making my bed, preparing dinner, travelling on the train. I found a way to tune into my mind and connect with my soul, allowing all of my thoughts, concerns, questions and ideas to just flow in and out, while I channeled my focus to whatever task I was doing. I would allow all of my sense to engage in the moment. I remember one instance where I was mopping the floor, and all of a sudden I found myself really noticing the texture of the wooden mop handle, zooming in on every strand of the mop head as it swished back and forth along the tiles. I noticed the sound and movement of the water each time I dipped the mop in and out. I hated mopping, yet I found myself gracefully sweeping across the floor like it was an effortless dance. I almost forgot I was doing it. And when it was over, I felt overcome with this amazing sense of peace and gratitude. Like the whole experience was a huge blessing that took me out of my living room, to some other place.When I was studying for my higher school certificate I used to read my study notes into a tape recorder, and play them on repeat while I was asleep. I used to find that more effective than trying to memorise everything by rote. I had to find my own way of learning, and for some reason I seemed to remembered everything I heard while I was asleep. This technique helped me immensely in my final exams as quotes and formulas came to me with ease, and I was able to sit through some challenging exams feeling calm and relaxed and quietly confident that I was going to be ok.Nobody suggested to me that I should do it. It just came to me one day, and it felt like the right thing to do.I used to often sit in the silence and listen to the sounds around me. A tree frog. The water running through the taps. The rain falling on the roof. The sound of cars passing by. Sometimes I would close my eyes, rest my hand on my heart and just feel it beating. I was very good a deep diaphragmatic breathing – skill nobody taught me, but I eventually learned in my singing classes in my later high school years. Once during a meditation class, a teacher once asked me “how did you feel during your meditation?”. I replied “It was really weird, I could smell the pine trees even before you guided us to them”. Sometimes I think meditation and mindfulness is more about learning to connect, than learning formal techniques.Here are some things that I have found helped me cultivate better mindfulness practice:
- Become friends with silence – this is a skill a lot of people find challenging. But I used to practice sitting in silence for hours. No speaking. No playing music. No television. No fidgeting. Just you and the natural sounds around you. There is beauty in stillness. Originally I did this because I was bored, but before long I realised that I really enjoyed it, and started to crave the silence.
- Practice consistency – if you are a routine person, find a time and a place where you can practice your mindfulness on a regular basis. If you find it helpful, create a sacred space in a corner or room that inspires or helps you connect with your soul. For those less routine focused, try and incorporate some mindfulness practice every day. First thing in the morning or before you go to bed at night are often popular choices.
- Learn to breathe – people laugh at me when I say this, but in our modern society we have lost the ability to breathe. With our stressful lives, constant rushing and emotions running high, our breath becomes more and more shallow. Learning to breathe deeply and intentionally has long term benefits not only for our mindfulness practice, but for our overall health.
- Do one thing at a time – experts are now starting to realise that multi-tasking may not be that efficient after all. Choose one task and focus on it completely from start to finish. This could be something simple like brushing your teeth, washing the dishes, or doing your hair. Allow all of your senses to fully experience what you are doing. You’ll be amazed how much we miss out on when we rush through our day, juggling everything at once. Try this exercise: sit down in a quiet place with one small square of chocolate. Ideally dark chocolate because it’s stronger. When everything is quiet, close your eyes and place the chocolate in your mouth. Don’t chew it – just sit and let it melt. Keep your eyes closed and notice what is going on in your mouth. What does the chocolate feel like? Is it bitter? Or does the taste change as it melts? Can you smell it? What other sensations are you experiencing?. When the chocolate has fully dissolved, notice how that feels and then slowly open your eyes. Notice how your mind and body feel, and compare that to how you felt at the start. It’s amazing how a simple act such as eating a piece of chocolate can become quite a peaceful and soulful experience.
- Acknowledge and Let go – In the beginning, you may find that there are thoughts and ideas that come to mind when you’re trying to sit in the quiet. That is ok. Even now, I sometimes have random songs come up and I still find it hard to get them out of my head. The best way to navigate through this is to simply acknowledge that the thought or idea (or song in my case) has occurred and gently let it go. Try not to entertain it, or respond to it, just imagine it flowing in and out like a gentle breeze. In time, you won’t even notice them, but if you do find that you really are struggling to focus, it’s sometimes a good idea to leave the session, and come back to it later.
- Find your own style – I think the most important thing, is to find a style that works for you. There is no one way to practice any of these things. Experiment with different places, different times, different areas of focus, with or without music, sitting or lying down, alone or in a group setting, indoors or outdoors, using guided recordings. The key is to allow yourself to stop, connect, and reflect. To remove the noise of the day and engage with your mind, heart, body, your breathe, your senses, and your environment. You’ll be surprised how much more in touch with yourself you will become as a result.
- Any time is better than no time – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, researchers have found that even 5 minutes a day has a noticeable improvement on our wellbeing. I’ve had days where the only time I can get to myself is when I’m on the toilet! It doesn’t matter how much time you do or don’t have. What matters is that you do something, and try to build some consistency. As you become more comfortable you may find you make a conscious decision to dedicate time to your practice. The health benefits will show themselves in no time.
- Use your creativity – meditation and mindfulness practice doesn’t have to be all about silence and stillness. In fact, it has been said that a truly mindful person can find stillness and calm within the noise and chaos around them. If you have a talent, you can certainly use this to channel your focus. If your an artist – you may able to express your reflections in the form of a painting or sculpture. If you’re a musician – you could create your own instrumental piece that you can use during your practice. If you’re a writer – you may find that journaling gives you that quiet reflection time that helps you reconnect and refocus. If you’re a dancer – you may find gentle movement or yoga or stretching is your way of connecting. Whatever you’re talent – bring it. This is a time to bring your whole self, not just one aspect alone. Whatever works for you, that’s your guide to better practice.