There is freedom in the ability to live your life mindfully.
To attain freedom from the prison of your own mind is not an easy task. Why would I make the analogy that our minds are like a prison?
Not having awareness of your minds constant chatter leads to you getting stuck in repeated patterns of negative thinking, you are not showing up and experiencing the real world as it unfolds, you are totally absorbed by what your mind is telling you, your minds version of events. Research show that we think 95% the same things day in day out.
The core concept of mindfulness is the awareness of what is happening in the present moment, awareness of bodily sensations, awareness of mood, awareness of environment, awareness of your mind chatter, awareness of the thoughts that you are having, wild, wonderful, and downright ridiculous. The ability to look at them as just a thought, something that has popped into your consciousness, see it as it is, but you do not have to entertain or engage with it or judge yourself as good or bad for having it. Research into the benefits of mindfulness has shown that we have up to 60,000 – 70,000 thoughts a day, that is a serious amount of thinking. Many of us are not aware that we are thinking, never mind thinking 70,000 thoughts a day... Our minds are helping us coast through life on auto pilot. Which is great in the sense that we do not have continually relearn things, imagine having to relearn how to walk, talk and drive every day, we would never get anything done. We have adapted to being able to complete many of our day-to-day tasks without even thinking about what we are doing, we get up in the morning make our bed, have breakfast, brush our teeth, drive to work etc., without having focus on the tasks at all. You can complete all the above while continually replaying a conversation you had the day before; our bodies are doing one thing while our minds are elsewhere (continuing the argument you had with your spouse). We do not have to engage with the tasks we are doing and many of us don’t. So, what’s the big deal then? If we can still get our work done and do all we have to do during the day, why should his be a problem?
Back to the research again… most of what we think about relates to past events or future outcomes. There are not many out there who could say they have not spent a decent portion of their time ruminating on the past, we all do it. Interestingly, rumination comes of the latin verb rūmināre, meaning to chew the cud. Chewing the cud is what cows do when they are eating, they eat, then they regurgitate what they have eaten and eat it again (lovely). We do this with our thoughts, some of us are regurgitating the same old thoughts for years now, ewww! It’s time we get some digestive enzymes (in this case the best brand is one called Mindfulness,it’s also free!!). Where does “chewing” on these same old thoughts get us? The most common answer to this is, it gets us nowhere, it just keeps us stuck. Stuck in the past, stuck with the feeling that these thoughts evoke because we are continually bring them back up to the surface.
So now that we have all this free time seeing as we are cutting down on rumination, we have more time for thinking about the future, hooray… Don’t get too excited.
What is wrong with thinking about the future, surely, we need to do this every day to help plan our day to day lives?! Of course, we do. We need some forward thinking to help our lives run smoothly. The nature of the thoughts you are having about the future is key here. Thinking about what activities you would like to plan on your upcoming trip versus thinking about the crime rates in the city you are going to and how they will break the news to your family that you have robbed and murdered are two distinctly different types of forward thinking. The problem with constantly thinking about future events is the fear that is associated with it. Much of our anxiety tends to be born from the fear of what may or may not happen. We can spend the majority of our lives fearful of events that never actually happen. Do you do this? Have you had that sick feeling in the pit ofyour stomach for days, worrying about an event that hasn’t happened?
“Worrying is paying interest on a debt you might not even owe” – Mark Twain
Thinking about it logically it seems like such a bizarre thing to do, to feel the pain, to shed the tears, before you have even been hurt. What is the antidote to this kind of thinking?
Becoming aware when these fearful,worrying thoughts arise means that you can stop the snowball effect our negative thoughts can have. By snowball effect I mean that, you have a negative thought,it pops into your head as if from nowhere;
“I bet there is a lot of crime in that city”
You engage with it, you assume that because you are thinking it, is a fact.
“What was I thinking booking a place like that”, “my hotel probably isn’t even safe”,“if someone attacks me, I won’t be able to defend myself” “I will just give them all my money and they will go away” “What if they don’t go away, what is they stab me?” “Receiving the call will break my parents heart”
This thinking results in you becoming emotional about your family hearing that you have been murdered. Although an extreme example, the snowball effect that can occur when you engage with that sort of thought can have a direct impact on your emotions. The stream of fearful thinking results in you experiencing the emotions associated with these negative events even though they haven’t occurred. How excited to do think you would be about your holiday if you had this mindset? The key thing about thoughts is,they are powerful!!! A lot more powerful than many people are acutely aware. They drive our feelings and emotions. If we become absorbed by a thought that induces the emotion of anger, we are likely to act and react in ways would we not havehad we not engaged with that thought. We say things we regret and damage relationships because we do not have the ability to disidentify with the thoughts that produced this anger. Not been able to disidentify means that we keep the anger alive within us. Staying angry is not possible without constantly fuelling the emotion through thought. If you do not continue to think about what has made you mad, then the emotion of anger will fade away. Maintaining these emotions takes work, the issue is, many of us are unaware of the work we are actually putting in, we are so used to being completely absorbed by the dramas of the mind we don’t even know that we have the power to stop it.
The quality of our life is very much related to the quality of our thoughts. If we spend our life at the mercy of our thoughts, completely lost in the constant stream of thinking unaware that it is our inner world, our thoughts that are shaping our external life,then we lack control, and our lives are at the mercy of whatever our minds choose to feed us.
This is where mindfulness comes in. It is like a superpower because it allows us to gain control over our thoughts and steer ourselves in a different direction.
“With great power comes great responsibility” – (Unknown– French Revolution, made popular by Benjamin Parker, Spiderman Series)
As already stated, mindfulness is a state of awareness of what happening in the present moment. When we are focused on the present moment we are not ruminating about the past or worrying about the future, we are experiencing life as it unfolds in the very moment.
As we now know, our thoughts drive our feeling, emotions and actions. If we have a constant stream of negative thinking, then it is highly likely we are not leading a content and fulfilling life.
Bringing awareness to our thinking enables us to recognize a thought as just as thought before the snowball effect occurs, meaning we can shutdown the thought before it impacts our emotions and behaviour. We have this innate ability to improve the quality of our lives, why are we not doing more of it?!
As many have said, mindfulness is a very simple concept, but it is not easy. Like all self-improvement tasks it takes effort, we do not go to the gym and expect to be fit and lean after one session. Mind training works the same, it takes consistency but there will never be a more worthwhile investment for yourself. When should I start?
There is no time like ‘the present’.
Tips of being more present
- Assess how you feel every morning on waking, don’t rush for your phone.
- Brush your teeth or hair with your non-dominant hand, this means you will be aware of what you are doing.
- Stick a reminder to your mirror, computer screen or the sun visor of your car, reminding you to be present.
- End your showers with a blast of cold water, sure way to make you present rapidly. Be aware that the thought of the experience is often worse that the experience itself.
- Engage your five senses, what can you see, hear, smell, feel and taste.
- Actively listen to a whole song by engaging with the lyrics.
- Meditate daily even if just for 1 minute.
- Tell yourself what you are doing when you are doing it e.g., I am walking down the stairs. Once you are used to focusing the present you will no longer need to tell yourself what you are doing.