This is the decade of mindfulness. The practice, which derives from meditation, is being credited with all kinds of benefits – helping with depression and stress, pain management and even physical fitness. It’s apparently the mental equivalent of going for gelato.
So what precisely is mindfulness? Hmm, or perhaps, omm. It’s not easy to pin down.
Wikipedia defines it as “intentionally bringing one’s attention to the internal and external experiences occurring in the present moment”, which is roughly as clear as mudfulness.
Reachout calls it a “special way of paying attention that can help with how you cope with everyday life or deal with tough times”, which sounds good, but doesn’t explain what you actually do to achieve these effects. Their article goes on, slightly less nebulously, to suggest that it’s about blocking thoughts of the past or future, and trying to be a value-free observer of your surroundings.
As far as I can gather, it’s like we’re supposed to access the rational person we become when we counsel friends not to worry about their horrible breakup, or whether they’ll ever meet anyone again, and concentrate on getting over it – only for ourselves.
So, how do we do that? How do we become the detached David Attenboroughs of your own brains?
Forget your hippie meditation classes and hipster colouring-in books. I have some simple ways to clear your mind of clutter and focus on the here and now.
We do it all day, every day, and so rarely think about breathing. Take a moment to do, now. Slowly fill your lungs, and imagine each little alveolus sac swelling with air. The oxygen is moving into your system. Thanks, oxygen.
Now slowly expel the carbon dioxide. Get lost, carbon dioxide.
Now, if anyone’s nearby, start wheezing, and make choking sounds. You could try saying ‘Can’t… breathe…’ in a strangled voice. Then, just before they dial 000, explain that it’s a mindfulness technique you’ve been working on. You’ve been paying close attention to your own breathing and now you want other people to pay attention to it, too.
Meditation is where you focus the mind on something specific. I have my own version of this, which I call me-ditation. I can think about myself endlessly, and reach what I believe is a higher plane of consciousness while doing so. For instance – what are my strengths? What are my other strengths? Which of my strengths is strongest?
I won’t focus on past failings or fears for the future. I’ll know that in this moment, I am truly awesome, and nobody can stop me thinking that about myself unless they interrupt me with reality, which is why I insist on not being disturbed during my me-ditation practice, which can sometimes last for many hours.
Life is like a game of solitaire, isn’t it? (Just think about that for a moment, and nod appreciatively). We lay out our own cards and play them as best we can, ultimately answering only to ourselves.
Which means that we can cheat, without getting caught out by anyone besides ourselves. It’s a helpful reminder that life isn’t fair, and that you may as well look after yourself by taking advantage whenever you can. (Don’t blame me, blame the capitalist system.)
Visualise a beach
Thinking of a beautiful calm beach on a perfect day is one of the most common guided meditation techniques. That’s well and good for some, but for my own guided meditation, I prefer to visualise Alex Garland’s novel The Beach, which tells the story of an idyllic community of backpackers living on a Thai beach that slowly descends into a hideous, brutal nightmare, leading to many of their deaths.
It’s a good reminder that no matter how good it seems, life is only a bit of poisoned food away from descending into a toxic hellscape, even if you’re as handsome as Leonardo diCaprio, and I find that soothing somehow.
Erase someone else’s colouring-in book
Colouring books are very fashionable at the moment, but it’s not often known that they work both ways. Rubbing out someone else’s painstaking work is not only faster than colouring yourself, but lets you work up elbow grease, which is handy exercise.
Sure, they may have carefully coloured in the patterns for their own mental wellbeing, but now that they’ve finished, they should be happy that you too have been able to derive spiritual satisfaction from their work by returning the book to its pristine, unspoiled condition.
And I find that if I focus on the moment, I don’t worry in the slightest about whether they’ll be annoyed by me doing this.
There is nothing that will make you more conscious of the here and now than sunburn. You’ll be keenly aware of every single movement you make, because just about all of them will be agonising. And you’ll be observing yourself, concluding that you should apply lots of aloe vera and make sure you slip, slop, slap next time.
Don’t forget that sunburn is also an extremely natural, organic process and helps us reconnect with ancestors who didn’t have access to fancy modern things like blockout. It will make you glad you’re not living in those times.
Start a worm farm
You will quickly find it hard to focus on anything besides the immediate moment of wondering why on earth you started a worm farm, and what’s the point of worm farms anyway, come to think of it, why are worm farms even a thing, and isn’t it horrifying that if you cut a worm in half you just get double the number of worms, that’s incredibly freaky, burn the worm farm, burn it now.
And so the circle of life continues. Poignant, isn’t it?
Or it’ll go well and you’ll make money, mostly by convincing other suckers to buy your worm farm starter kit. Which may not strictly be ‘mindfulness’ but certainly is lucrative.
Hang on to a ledge by the tips of your fingers
No past, no future, just now. That’s how it feels to be suspended over a ledge by your fingertips. Try to observe yourself outside your body. You’ll see you, clinging on, and perhaps you’ll reflect on your position as a metaphor for the precariousness of life.
Perhaps someone will call the fire brigade, or perhaps they won’t – it’s out of your control. Don’t worry about that. Your job is to cling on. Just as we all do.
When embracing this practice, I tend to choose a ledge about 2m off the ground, but I visualise myself much higher for the same effect (see earlier entry about cheating at solitaire).
Strum the banjo
You’ve always wanted to play the banjo, or is that just me? I’m not very good at knowing what other people want, usually because I’m in the moment, focussing on myself.
Well, as every mindfulness devotee knows, there’s no time like the present. Get that banjo and play it. Play it a lot, no matter how terrible it sounds. You’re Steve Martin, only funnier, better at the banjo, and also you never starred in a remake of The Pink Panther. Visualise it and it’s as good as true.
Also, constantly playing the banjo with zero skill will make everyone around you much less happy with their lives, so you’ll seem to have it together by comparison.
Come up with a better definition of mindfulness
Perhaps you could try to come up with an explanation that makes it sound less like a fortune cookie or a George Harrison song, and more like the valuable psychological technique that many medical experts now agree it is.
I guarantee this will be such a challenging mental task that you won’t possibly be able to think about anything else, probably for days. You’ll observe yourself pondering endlessly, but not be able to stop.
Then, when you’ve cracked it, could you please edit that Wikipedia entry so that it makes sense?
Unlike this article, mindfulness is a genuinely helpful discipline. The Black Dog Institute has some useful notes here (PDF), and the Mayo Clinic is instructive too, while and BeyondBlue has some mindfulness resources including an app for new mothers. You may also choose to consult your doctor.