Mindfulness offers so much promise: “Practising mindfulness can give people more insight into their emotions, boost their attention and concentration and improve relationships. It’s proven to help with stress, anxiety, depression and addictive behaviours, and can even have a positive effect on physical problems like hypertension, heart disease and chronic pain” (taken from the Mental Health Foundation’s Bemindful website).
This year started with a lot of things that needed attention, personally and professionally, and nowhere near enough hours in the day. If you have every been caught up in stress and anxiety, you may be able to recognise the point at which you cannot focus on anything because the head is just too full, and you use over-activity to avoid dealing with the difficult things. And you know that if you keep going in this direction there is an inevitable crash round the corner, as the difficult things will not have gone away and will have grown, if anything, and the more you keep in the over-active mindset, the less able you will be to deal with them. So, I noticed, with some alarm, that I was at precisely that tipping point, and that I needed to do something about it, quickly. I had heard quite a bit about mindfulness and it seemed to be precisely what I needed.
In case you are as mystified as I was about what mindfulness is, here is a definition, from the same Bemindful website: “Mindfulness is a way of paying attention to the present moment, using techniques like meditation, breathing and yoga. It helps us become more aware of our thoughts and feelings so that instead of being overwhelmed by them, we’re better able to manage them”. At a time of being overwhelmed this seemed incredibly attractive. I am an academic, and no matter how remote the idea of meditation might seem to me (I have never seen it as “my sort of thing”), the fact that there is evidence that it works made it worth trying. I got started with a session with Karin, a yoga and mindfulness teacher based in Canterbury, she introduced the concepts and techniques and took me through a meditation. Before we started I thought that meditating required emptying your mind of thoughts, which to me seemed entirely impossible and not even worth trying. The focus was much more on being in the moment, and she offered tools to do that: from focussing on the body and how it feels, to the breathing (and counting, which helps keep the brain from wondering!), to just listening to the sounds around you. She gave me a CD with a few guided meditations and I have enjoyed doing them. It does feel good. The fact she has a very kind and calming voice is an added bonus.
At the same time of starting to practice mindfulness, in my evidence-based quest for keeping anxiety at bay, I also started running, as exercise is also proven to work. And something quite interesting happened. Through the sessions with Karin and a bit of reading, I had an understanding about what mindfulness was trying to achieve. Sitting down to meditate did take me there a bit, but I never really felt I was fully achieving this sense of “just being in the present”. Instead, it happened while running. There is this moment when you “zone out”, or “get in the zone”. When you start a run your breathing becomes very rhythmic, and your mind can spend some time wondering around with apparently random thoughts, a bit like what happens when you simply sit down with the intention of meditating. Then there is this moment when the thoughts are done with and it is all just about the fact that you are running and where you are in your run, and you don’t even think about the breathing or anything else.
As someone with a job that involves sitting around for so much of the day it is far more appealing to put on the running shoes, go outside and move than doing yet more sitting still to meditate. And it seems to work in much the same way, or even better. I am glad I learnt about mindfulness though, and that I did try to sit down and meditate, and I have Karin’s CD to go back to if for some reason running isn’t an option.
Life is still busy, of course, but it feels back under control.