Really taking notice of my surroundings is a skill I’m continually trying to develop and I’m pleased to say I’ve become much better at it over recent years. If I was to give myself marks out of ten, I would say I’m a seven now, but it wasn’t that long ago that I was hovering between a one and a two (yes, really that low) because my brain was always ten steps ahead of wherever I was.
And then I discovered mindfulness. But before you decide to stop reading because the mindfulness word has turned you off, please bear with me. Honestly, it’s changed my life quite dramatically and last night’s view has inspired me to share this with you today.
I was introduced to mindfulness about nine years ago during a particularly difficult and hugely momentous period; I call it my annus horribilis. We all have times, things and events that happen in our lives that are so emotionally BIG, it feels like we’ve forgotten how to breathe properly never mind take notice of our surroundings. Putting one foot in front of another during these times is an achievement in itself; noticing what’s going on around us can be a bit blurry.
My feelings of detachment and unfamiliarity with my surroundings at that time, prompted me to seek help.
Acknowledging that you need help is a BIG THING. It’s BIG because it’s scary and for all sorts of reasons but like lots of things in life, scary things don’t seem so scary when you look directly at them and get to know them a bit better.
Asking for help, introduced me to mindfulness and opened my eyes to a whole new world. I’d like to tell you how it did that but without sounding like I’m some kind of guru on the subject, which obviously I’m not.
There are lots of definitions about mindfulness, but the one I like best is from the master himself, who designed and delivered the first Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programme at the University of Massachusetts in 1979. It’s this:
‘Paying attention, in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgementally’, John Kabatt Zin.
Telling you the ins and outs of the MBSR patient course that I attended would be boring because, for it to be meaningful, you had to be there, but believe me when I say, IT CHANGED MY VIEW ON THE WORLD. Seriously. It came into my life at just the right time.
There’ll be some of you reading this, who’ve been introduced to mindfulness and who, like me, may have been skeptical in the beginning about how ‘being in the moment’ was going to be of any real use. There’ll be others of you, thinking mindfulness sounds like a load of rubbish. I can only speak for myself, and do so with conviction, when I tell you: it has been and continues to be very helpful and beneficial to my wellbeing. But, like anything that’s of real benefit to our health, mindfulness has to be practised regularly to be effective. It needs some nurturing to feel the effects.
Don’t just take my word for it; there are hundreds of evidence-based scientific papers on the efficacy of mindfulness.
It’s been particularly effective at helping me to:
- reduce the amount of time I have negative thoughts about the future which is beyond my control
- take time to pause, really noticing my surroundings and being present
- acknowledge anxious thoughts, without dwelling on them and becoming consumed by those thoughts
- notice when I’m breathing shallowly, which reminds me to take a few minutes out, to sit and breathe deeply.
A homework task that we were set during my eight week mindfulness course was to take a mindful walk around the place that we lived; not a new walk but one that was familiar and that had been done many times before. The task was to walk a normal route but to walk and really notice our surroundings, using our eyes, ears and sense of smell.
I did this homework task around Stokesley, the market town where I live. The things I observed were ordinary things, but I noticed stuff about these ordinary things for the first time: the way the sun shone through the leaves on the trees in the local play-park, the noise that the river made when I really listened and the way that the flowers in the baskets on the High St made the street look so pretty.
If this sounds like madness, I’m very happy to say it’s not; walking mindfully has changed the way I get from A to B and mindfulness can be applied to every part of our lives. For example, having a mindful conversation with a family member, friend or work colleague and really listening is enlightening and so much less energy intensive than trying to listen to another conversation that’s going on in your head at the same time.
Eating mindfully, is another great way of being in the moment and was also part of homework tasks set. How many meals have you had, where you haven’t actually tasted your food properly because you’ve rushed to finish your meal, your mind elsewhere, thinking about other stuff you have to achieve that day? I’ve had loads of meals like that but I’m trying to have a lot less.
And trying is the key word because each day brings its own challenges. Some days are harder than others; we all have days where we feel exhausted and a bit worn out and it’s on those days especially that mindfulness has helped me.
Yesterday was one of those days and so, early evening, my husband and I took ourselves off to Little Ayton, past Fletchers Farm and did a mindful walk. Stopping to really notice the sky, with its cloud formations and vivid colours, made me feel invigorated and reminded me of the beautiful things that are all around us and that are always there when we really take the time to look.
And, when I listened really carefully, I was certain I could hear someone say, ”You’re alive”.