As I recently attended another mindfulness weekend, I thought this would be the perfect time to write a blog about meditation and mindfulness and the positive impact introducing something so simple can have on your mental and physical health and well-being.
I know many people will think that living a less toxic life is all about what we are putting into our bodies and bringing into our homes and not anything to do with what’s going on in our own heads. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our minds are amazing complicated computers and we don’t give them enough credit for what they do for us, instead we often do the complete opposite and put them under immense and continued pressure. We also allow our minds to run away with themselves, generating problems, plans, concepts, running over old ground (again and again) and worrying about the future and what could and will most likely not be!
Some of the reason we think like this is because our minds are still pre-programmed with the fight or flight response from many, many generations ago. This is the response animals have to danger. As soon as they think they notice something they instantly go into this fight or flight response. This response gives them a surge of adrenaline to be able to run or fight their potential attacker. We humans still have this response within us. However, these days we don’t need to run or fight a dinosaur or buffalo, or whatever potential life threatening encounter we could come across. No – these days our fight or flight response kicks in when we are under stress of other kinds. This could be due to work commitments, family issues, relationships, health concerns, or concerns for loved ones, or with most of us, all of the above!
It’s normal to worry, dwell and plan, that’s part of what makes us human. However, the constant worrying, dwelling and planning, that’s where the problem comes, that’s when our mind and body start to think we are in the fight or flight response; that’s when the body starts to produce more adrenaline. Adrenaline and cortisol (our steroid-like hormone that the adrenal glands produce when they believe we require this additional help) hamper your sleep; make you feel edgy, stressed and unable to deal with normal day-to-day things. The longer this goes on the longer the body feels it’s under attack, continuing to try to support you with more hormones, which produce greater amount of health issues and concerns, including thyroid issues, fatigue, weigh gain, hair loss, emotional instability and many others. You may or may not recognise some of this by now, but this is what we generally refer to as stress!
So how do we bring these stress levels down, how to we get off the the stress and anxiety merry-go-round? Well first step is to reduce the things, people and events in our lives that make us stressed. I know this is easier said than done, so if we can’t do this, or this simply isn’t enough then we need to learn new ways of dealing with life’s little hiccups. Reducing our reaction to events, giving the body some down time to heal and living more in the ‘now’ are all amazing tools for this and are all incorporated in meditation and mindfulness.
I found this quote among my mindfulness training paperwork (from the Mindfulness Association) that beautifully explains what meditation is really all about:
Mindfulness analogy of undercurrent and observer:
A useful analogy for explaining the undercurrent and observer is someone sitting on the bank of a river and watching the water flow by. The river is like the undercurrent and the observer is the one who sits on the bank. Sometimes the river is turbulent and other times it flows smoothly; sometimes it washes logs and debris downstream, whilst other times the water is clear and translucent. Our minds are like this. The key instruction in mindfulness practice is to remain sitting on the bank of the river, watching the changing flow. The various mindfulness methods are ways of assisting us in remaining grounded in this observing mode and staying on the bank. When we become distracted and involved with what is flowing by it is like jumping into river and being carried along in its flow, sometimes tumbling over waterfalls, other times caught amongst the swirling debris, while other times basking in a still, clear pool. The key point is that we are caught in the flow and vulnerable to where it takes us, sometimes in a desirable direction, while other times in the direction of confusion and suffering. What pulls us into the river are the likes and dislikes of the observer – the one sitting on the bank. We like some things and grasp at them and we dislike other things and push them away. Either way we fall in.
You can learn to be the observer with regular meditation practice and learn to live more in the ‘now’ when you become more mindful of your thoughts and your daily activities.
I would recommend if you’re new to all this that you start with guided meditations (this involves listening to someone guide you through a meditation/visualisation and keeps you from becoming to distracted) until you become confident in this and feel you can move on to the non-guided sort.
When we put on a guided mediation recording (or for more advanced people do silent meditations) we bring our mind into the ‘now’. We stop (during this time) focussing on the past, the future, the worries, the plans and the plots. Instead we focus on whatever the meditation is about/is using as a means to be in ‘the now’. This might be our breath, our body, a candle, a mantra, a beautiful scene or a relaxing situation. In this time our mind stops being busy, becomes quiet, rests and recuperates. This is turn reduces the production in the fight or flight hormones and our anxiety and stress levels begin to subside.
If you mediate daily and become more mindful then you give your mind and body the time to heal itself from the stress cycle it may have got itself into and the benefits of this can be huge. These are some of them:
- Reduces stress, anxiety and panic attacks
- Enhances the immune system
- Increases blood flow through the body
- Reduces blood pressure
- Reduces headaches and migraines
- Increases mental clarity
- Increases stamina
- Balances hormones
- Improves the flow of air in the lungs
- Reduces insomnia
- Helps you feel grounded
- Reduces aggression
- Helps with addictions
- Reduces pain in the body
- Releases tension through the body
Here’s a short meditation transcript for beginners.
Find a comfortable position, like sitting upright in a chair or on a meditation stool, but make sure it is one in which you will not fall asleep.
Close your eyes.
Relax your muscles, making sure your facial, neck, shoulders and back muscles are all relaxed and you are well supported by the position you’re in.
Notice your breathing, how your breath flows in and out.
Make no effort to change your breathing in any way, simply notice how your body breathes.
When your attention wanders (as it will), just focus again on your breathing.
Do not give yourself a hard time for your mind wandering, simply recognise it has and return to the breath.
See how your breath continues to flow in and out, deeply and calmly.
Feel the air entering through your nose and filling your whole body with beautiful healing light and energy. Then notice the slight pause before it begins to leave your body through the pursed lips of your mouth and again notice a slight pause before the cycle begins once more.
Feel your chest and stomach gently rise and fall with each breath.
Notice how cleansing each breath feels within your body and appreciate this gift you are giving to yourself.
See how calm and gentle your breathing is, and how relaxed your body feels.
Now notice the sounds around you, start with the sounds outside, then bring this attention to the sounds in the room and lastly to the sounds of your own body.
Feel the chair or floor beneath you, how your body touches this and where.
Feel your clothes against your body.
Move your fingers and toes.
Roll your shoulders.
Open your eyes, and remain sitting for a few moments longer.
Then stretch your arms and legs gently.
Sit for a few more moments, enjoying how relaxed you feel, and thank yourself for this gift you have given yourself and now go about your normal day knowing you have done something fundamentally good for yourself today!
What exactly is mindfulness?
Well, simply put it’s being more mindful in your day-to-day activities (as well as during meditations). This means bringing your mind into the now rather than in the past or future. Often during the course of our day we either knowingly or unknowingly slip into this loop of thinking/overplaying about past events and future worries and concerns. This helps to keep us in the stress/fight or flight cycle. With mindfulness we learn to be more present in the moment.
So this is how it works:
When you’re washing the dishes (or any other normal day-to-day activity), rather than focusing on what to make for tonight’s dinner or an upsetting conversation you had last week, you instead focus on the feeling of the water on your hands, what it looks like, how it comes out the tap, how amazing and actually beautiful the whole experience is. Really try to notice everything about the experience, be completely absorbed by the moment and really take it all on board. When I have finished my mindful practice I like to take a deep breath and appreciate the moment once more before moving on with the rest of my day.
You can do this for just about anything and as many times during the day as you like. It’s teaching (and forming new habits) your mind to be more in the ‘now’ and this way it reduces the stresses an anxieties about living in the past or future, reducing the fight or flight response within the body and having the added benefit of making you appreciate how amazing these simple things we do every single day really are.
Try walking mindfully, noticing nature, life and people around you. See how you get on, it’s an amazing way to start to really notice this beautiful world, it opens your eyes up to things you’d usually walk straight past or wouldn’t give a second glance to, it helps you lose the blinkers!
There are a huge amount of guided meditations online. If you don’t have much time or money then just download a free 3 min meditation and use it once or twice a day or try being mindful in some of your daily activities. Even very short meditations and periods of mindfulness make a difference to your stress and anxiety levels and thus have a positive impact on overall health, both physically and mentally.
Why not give it a go, what have you got to loose?