Goldie does it. Arianna does it. Sr Stan and even Nell does it. Let’s do it. Let’s meditate. (Mindfully).
Suddenly, everyone has come over all mindful. It’s all the rage. Goldie Hawn has set up The Hawn Foundation to teach mindfulness and emotional intelligence to children across six countries; Arianna Huffington – from The Huffington Post – is advocating the use of mindfulness in the workplace; our own Sr Stanislaus Kennedy has written extensively about it, and one of the latest recruits to hit our airwaves is journalist and commentator extraordinaire, Nell McCafferty, who came out just a month or so ago as a mindful meditator.
So what’s the attraction for this disparate but fascinating group of women, and for the millions of others, who are buying countless books, apps and cds in search of calm? Is it just the solace-du-jour?
It worked for me as a stressed-out PR manager juggling 13-hour days, constantly being on-call, family time, and trying to squeeze in a smidge of sanity through the cracks.
It’s worked for many clients of mine who are seeking solutions to symptoms of stress, depression and anxiety, and a sense that life is hurtling them hither, tither and yon. Rather than being driven by life’s forces, they want to be in the driving seat.
So, How Do You Do It?
Do you breathe? Then you can do it. It is simple. It is about stilling oneself.
There are four main steps:
1. Calming the Body - relaxing, letting tension go.
2. Becoming Aware – of the body, of thoughts, of feelings
3. Focusing Attention – using the breath as the conduit.
4. Expanding Attention – incorporating a broader focus.
Given the pace at which we live our lives, for beginners, I advocate starting a practice with a conscious relaxation. The purists may demure, but given that our bodies are often stressed, particularly initially, conscious relaxation is hugely useful and conducive to reaching a mindful state.
1. Calming the Body
Sit or lie comfortably. Close your eyes if possible. Allow yourself to breathe deeply from your stomach for a few breaths. Then make your out-breath a little longer than your in-breath (counting 7 for in-breath and 11 for out-breath, perhaps). Lean-in to the out-breath and feel your body automatically and gently begin to relax. Stay with this breathing for a minute or so.
2. Becoming Aware
Then start to acknowledge what is going on in your body. How it feels. Notice whatever you are experiencing right here right now – whether pleasant or unpleasant. Gently tune in to your thoughts. Try and adopt an attitude of curiosity rather than interrogation. Allow them to pass by rather than become over-involved in them. Just notice them rather than try to change them. Then notice your emotions. Notice how you are feeling. Don’t try to change or suppress these feelings. Just be aware of what they are. Allow these to float by as if they are clouds on your inner skyscape.
3. Focusing Attention
Focus the attention back on your breath: On your in-breath and on your out-breath; on the feeling of the air being drawn in through your nostrils and expelled again. Don’t try to manipulate the timing of the breath. Just be with it in the moment. Focus on the stomach as it expands with each in-breath and contracts with the out-breath. If thoughts seek to intercede, and they will – daydreams, worries about the past, plans for the future - acknowledge them uncritically and without judgment – and gently guide the attention back to the breath. Just ‘be’ with the breath, gently guiding attention back to it each time it drifts.
4. Expand the focus
Expand the focus on attention from the breath to other parts of the body. If you have 40 minutes to hand, the full body scan is wonderfully conducive. If not, just focus sequentially on main body groups: from feet, to legs, to torso, to arms, to head & neck, and face – imagining your breath reaching those body parts and being released from them, part by part, building up to breathing with your entire body. Again, gently acknowledge thoughts and feelings intervening, and gently bring you attention back to the body and breath.
Attitude throughout is important: Please be accepting of yourself. Be compassionate. Be curious and uncritical. With practice, the fourth step can be infused with intention and many, many different attentional foci – from the senses to emotional needs; from letting go to forgiveness.
There are many aids to help along the way – apps and websites like Richard Hansons ‘The Buddha’s Brain’, and Andy Puddicombe’s ‘GetSomeHeadspace’; books by writers from Jon Kabat Zinn to Sr Stanislaus Kennedy and cds to accompany them all. Introductory classes are advisable to ensure that you’re on the right path, because although the destination is simplicity itself, the journey to get there may have been long - a lifetime of worrying often. The brain resists new practices until you prove your commitment. So guided mindfulness is very useful in the beginning – it’s the bike-with-stabilizers phase. Soon, you’re ready to freewheel and explore on your own. The more regularly you do so, the better.
Cathriona Edwards is a Psychologist and Psychotherapist in private practice in Dun Laoghaire and Ballsbridge.
She teaches a one-day introductory workshop to Mindfulness and Human Givens Psychology at the Dublin Human Givens Centre.