Mindfulness for people who think it’s nonsense

It’s something you have probably heard about and are vaguely aware that it has something to do with sitting still and not doing anything for a while. Who’s got time for that, right? If you’re too busy to do nothing, then you’re precisely the person that mindfulness meditation would help. And no, it’s not just for celebrities and hippies – normal people can do it too. Yes, even you… 

This is how it works:

Find somewhere quiet to sit, where you won’t be disturbed for at least 15 minutes. This may not be simple, so find wherever works for you. I think mindfulness works best in the morning as it sets you up well for the rest of the day, but do it when and where works best for you.

You can sit in a chair, or on the floor, wherever you are comfortable. I like to lean against something otherwise my back hurts, and as you don’t get extra points for being a hardy sort, I would recommend that you do the same. Don’t sit on a squishy sofa, or tuck yourself up in bed, as there are also no prizes for guessing what happens then and falling asleep is not the same as meditating.

Set a timer for ten minutes. I would recommend the one on your phone as it’s silent. A kitchen one ticking away next to you won’t work at all. If you can set the sound to something gentle, like a soft bell, then do that. You don’t want to jolted out of your reverie by a shrieking buzzer.

Get yourself settled and comfy. You’ll be sitting still for a while. Rest your hands on your lap, you don’t need to do them any special way, just however is comfortable.

Start by taking a few deep breaths. You will be amazed at how much better you feel by doing that; just getting some air deep into the lungs clears your head and reminds you that despite the fact we do it from the moment we’re born til the moment we die, most of us are rubbish at breathing. Breathe deeply in through your nose, and out through your mouth. When you have done this a few times, close your eyes, and let your breathing return to normal. 

Pay attention to the sounds that you hear around you. Familiarize yourself with them so they don’t disturb you. It sounds crazy, but something as simple as acknowledging “That’s a dripping tap. That’s my neighbour’sdog barking. That’s a delivery van reversing…” will stop them becoming petty annoyances that prod you in the face while you are trying to relax. You’ve acknowledged them, they have nothing to do with what you’re doing right now, so let them go.

Start to scan down your body Starting at the top of your head, focus on what your body feels like, but in passing, don’t linger on any niggles. For example, I have a permanently stiff neck after three unfortunate and quite serious whiplash injuries, so I normally start at the top of my head and give a running commentary on how my body is feeling as I work my way down, picturing each part in my mind.

Mine goes like this: “My head is fine, my face is fine, my neck is stiff, my shoulders are sore, my arms are fine, my hands are fine, my chest is fine, my stomach is sore, my thighs are fine, my legs are fine, my feet are fine.” You can use whatever words work for you, but this is an example. You are commenting on how your body feels, in a matter-of-fact way, not lingering on it. You’re not having to do anything about any niggles or aches, you’re just seeing them for what they are and moving on. Even just saying the parts of the body works for me as well: “Head, face, neck, throat, shoulders, arms, elbows, forearms, wrists, hands, fingers, back, chest, stomach, lower back, pelvis, buttocks, thighs, knees, shins, calves, ankles, feet, soles of feet, toes…” Work your way down in whichever way feel right for you.

Ask yourself “Why am I doing this?” and not in a grumpy way. I tend to say to myself: “I am doing this today to make me relax, to help me cope with things better.” Other times, I just say to myself that I’m doing it because I’m feeling stressed, or low, or anxious. Or I say I want to be a more patient mother and partner.  Sometimes I just say I’m doing it because it feels good. There are no rules.

Ask yourself “How do I feel?” Now this is interesting. Usually, we are so programmed to say ‘fine’ when asked this question, we don’t really ask ourselves how we are feeling at any one moment. We’re either trying to hide it (annoyed) or enjoy it (happy), and we don’t really own up to it or put a name to it. But no one is going to hear you, this is just for you, and I can’t tell you how liberating it is to say, “I am pissed off today, I’m in a really bad mood”, when you’ve just done the mum thing and smiled and waved your kids off to school or had a really bad day at work. Be honest, say to yourself “I’m feeling grumpy today. I am stressed today.” No one is going to judge you. It’s actually interesting to pause for a moment and think about how you’re feeling, and it can be as liberating saying you’re annoyed as it is to say: “I’m feeling calm today. I’m feeling happy”. You’re not trying to change it, or do anything about it, or trying to impress anyone. That’s just how you’re feeling right now, and that’s fine.

By now, you should be feeling a little more relaxed.

Start to focus on your breath. Feel the air coming in through your nose, going down into your chest, and notice how it feels as it expands and contracts as the air comes in and out of your body. Do this a few times, and then start to count each breath, counting “one” as it goes in, “two” as it goes out, and so on. Do this until you get to ten, and then start over again.

Now that sounds very simple, but this is where the mindfulness bit comes in. This is the point where your brain decides it would rather drip feed an annoying tune that you can’t quite remember who it is by, into your head. Then you’ll remember that you forgot to buy that birthday card you were supposed to. Or get Weetabix. And who was it you were going to call this afternoon about that funny smell coming out of the bath? And oh God, that’s right, the dentist, you were meant to book that six month checkup for the kids. Now their teeth are going to rot and fall out and it’s all your fault. What number was I on again?

You get the gist. This is where the breathing and the counting come in; to give your mind a rest from all this stuff. It’s all important stuff obviously, (especially the annoying song that you can’t remember who it’s by). You just don’t need to think about it right now. 

When this happens – and it will, every time, this bit doesn’t stop, you just get better at stepping away from the chatter – I like to think of these thoughts as annoying children. I have children, so I am very well versed in this. You don’t need to have children to do this, because you will have experienced this. It may only have been as a child yourself, and I know you were once one of them.

Think about this from a grown-up’s point of view: you know that thing when you are in the middle of doing something, and a child rushes up and tugs your arm because they must show you (a) a stick they found (b) the hole in their sock or (c) their favourite YouTube clip of a cat? You are right in the middle of (a) a phone call to work, (b) cooking dinner or (c) a juicy bit of gossip from a friend. Either way, you are busy, so you can’t stop and admire the stick, hole or cat. So you say “Not right now, in a minute.” If you are the kind of parent who drops everything the moment your child sneezes, then this method may not work for you, but I’m quite good at saying “not now, in a minute” to mine, especially if the reason is (c) some really juicy gossip. You haven’t said, “No, go away! I will not listen to you, stop it, I won’t look… aaargrr, I’m looking! I’ve forgotten where I was!” But that is exactly what you do when you try and force your brain to ignore the annoying thoughts as they pop up, tugging on your mind’s sleeve and demanding instant attention. You’ve very nicely said, “I know you’re there, but I’m doing this right now, I’ll deal with you in a minute.” And the pesky thought, rather than hanging onto your arm and whining until you pay it some attention, wanders off to draw on walls or flush things down the loo, or whatever it is thoughts do while no one is listening to them. 

I find that the pesky kids analogy works, because that’s what thoughts are like. They flounce around in your brain like hyper toddlers wanting someone to play with, and just need a bit of parental guidance.

So, when you are breathing in and out, and counting, and a thought pops in, acknowledge it, but don’t stop what you’re doing. Recognise it for what it is; it’s a thought, and you’ll deal with it later. You can even say in your head “that’s just a thought” if that helps you. It will drift off, then sure enough another thought will arrive. Keep breathing, and counting, and acknowledge this thought, and let it drift away.

You will also get random feelings rising up while you are breathing and counting – who knew so much could go on in your head while you were just sitting there, minding your own business, breathing in and out!

They are rarely happy ones, but if they are, then excellent, they can stay. Sometimes a thought can pop into your head that will remind you of something that made you angry. So now you’re feeling anger. I like to think of the feelings that crop up as moody teenagers. They feel like the whole world is against them and nobody understands, so they mope around, being rude and messy until they get a rise out of someone and can have a good old row and get things off their chest. That’s what feelings are doing when they lurch into your brain. And in the same way as you would deal with a moody teen – you acknowledge that this feeling is anger, but you are busy right now, and you’ll deal with it later. And off it will go, grumbling that nobody is interested in them. Keep breathing in and out, counting each breath, up til ten, then start again. As a mother with teens in the house, I find this method also works while trying to talk sense into them.

It sounds like an awful lot of work doesn’t it? All that sitting there breathing and counting and telling your thoughts and feelings to get lost! But here’s the thing. You would have had all those thoughts and feelings anyway, but you’d have them mooching around your head while you were trying to get on with your day and cope with the things that really needed to be dealt with, on top of all of that. It explains why at the end of every day, you feel knackered and ratty with everyone, because your brain is worn out from dealing with real stuff on the outside, and nonsense on the inside. 

This is your chance to let your brain have a rest and switch off or a while. And when it does, amazing things happen to your body. Your stress levels drop, and the stress hormones in your body reduce. Even if you only manage to get to ten a handful of times, your mind and your body can feel the benefit of having a rest, just for that short space of time. Do it every day, and it will get easier, because you will know how to shush the annoying thoughts and feelings. It won’t work every time; some days they will keep banging on and on and you can’t help but stop counting and give in to them. That’s fine. Try again later, or the next day, and don’t beat yourself up about it. Sometimes the kids win. But eventually you can train them so that they are seen, but not heard.

When your timer goes off, let your mind wander for a few moments. Don’t think about counting, or your breath, let it do whatever it wants. It will probably be quite happy just to stay where it is, and will normally sit quietly in your head, awaiting further instruction.

After a few breaths, bring your awareness back to the sounds around you. You’ll be amazed at what you’d blocked out while you were busy focusing on your breath –the drippy tap and neighbours dog were there all along. Then focus on your body and start to notice how heavy it is; the weight of your body on the chair or the floor, your hands in your lap, your head on your shoulders. Again, you’ll be amazed how you hadn’t noticed them. Slowly open your eyes and let yourself readjust to being back in the room. Notice how you feel. However you feel is ok, there is no right or wrong, it’s just how you are feeling at this moment. Once you feel ready, slowly get up, and carry on with your day.

And that’s it. It’s simple, but it can be tricky, and you do need to keep trying with it. But trust me, it works. It won’t make it all go away, or make you “better”, but it really will help. Sometimes all you can do is stop, and let it happen. 

From Confessions of a Menopausal Woman by Andrea McLean

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