As much as many of us choose to overlook it, there is a lot wrong with the way most of us currently live our lives. We evolved in an environment completely foreign to the world we live in now and adapted to gain abilities and traits that in many ways leave us unsuited for our current environment.
We sit in chairs all day long gaining weight, we eat processed foods and we face constant stresses from work, from our relationships and from our finances.
What’s more, we are constantly in demand and constantly ‘plugged in’ and ‘stressed out’. Our phones are always ringing, texts are always coming in, we get a new e-mail every two minutes… And even when most of us aren’t working or being bothered, we have a near addiction to technology that means we’re still unable to really decompress.
Is it any wonder that mental health problems are so rife?
Using Mindfulness to Escape Modern Stress
This is probably a big part of the reason that mindfulness is so popular right now. Mindfulness simply means directing attention in a purposeful manner. Sometimes this will mean focusing on our thoughts (in an objective and non-judgemental way) but in other cases it will mean simply being more present and focusing on our breathing and our environments.
Either way, the idea of mindfulness is to enjoy a calmness and to stop the incessant chatter of our minds. When you are completely engaged with the world around you, or when you decide to disengage with your thoughts, it provides you with relief from stress and from fear – and instead allows you to simply relax and recover.
Mindfulness for Concentration
What’s more, practicing mindfulness is also the perfect tool for improving concentration. Mindfulness forces you to develop a ‘mental discipline’ that is sorely lacking for many of us today. Too often, most of us have 20 things vying for our attention. While we have allegedly become better at multitasking as a result, we’ve also become much worse at focusing on one thing for extended periods. This makes it harder for us to read a large passage of text for instance, or to work without feeling the need to continuously check Facebook.
Again, mindfulness is the perfect tonic. Here, you are tasked with focusing on your environment, your thoughts or your feelings for an extended period of time. And as such, you improve your own focus and mental discipline.
Imagine what it might be like to be an animal such as a squirrel. A squirrel doesn’t have worries about the dynamics of their workplace, about debt or about their relationships. Squirrels don’t have their head in the clouds daydreaming about what might be… They don’t have regrets and they don’t have delusions.
Instead, a squirrel simply experiences the world as it is. Hyperreal across all the senses, squirrels simply take in the world around them as it happens and react on a dime.
This is something that a lot of people aspire to, as they believe that it will make them happier and help them to enjoy the world around them more. But just as important and just as valuable is the incredible benefit that this type of presence and mindfulness has in terms of athletics.
Bruce Lee and ‘No Mind’
An aspiration for many martial artists, including the legendary Bruce Lee, is to reach a state known as ‘no-mind’. No-mind effectively means that you are reacting without thought, purely on instinct. Instead of experiencing your surroundings, thinking how best to respond and then reacting; you instead react without pause or consideration.
In martial arts, this state of no-mind is accomplished through rigorous training. By simply repeating the same block over and over again, you eventually reach a point where your arm moves to block without any need for you to consciously command it to do so. Likewise, by repeating the same punch over and over, the martial artist can reach the point where they’re able to punch perfectly.
At this point, they have strengthened the neural pathways required to deliver the perfect technique and thus it reaches the point where it is really second nature. Many athletes in other sports achieve similar performance when they are completely engaged with what they are doing and this is often called a ‘flow state’.
As you might imagine then, the practice of mindfulness will only enhance your skill as a combatant and as an athlete. And in fact, there is a similar term used within the context of CBT: ‘choiceless awareness’.
Being Aware of Your Body
Just as mindfulness and meditation can help you to improve your physicality, so too can being more physical help you to be more mindful. This is because focusing on our bodies will take focus away from our monologue. Simply try being aware of your distribution of weight, of your breathing, of your temperature – and you’ll find that instantly you become far more ‘present’ and much closer to mindfulness and choiceless awareness.
Mindfulness is the practice of ‘getting out of your own head’ and of simply being rather than constantly thinking, worrying and stressing. While mindfulness is a common part of many meditative practices, it is also an integral part of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). More specifically, mindfulness is used for ‘cognitive restructuring’ which is an aspect of CBT concerned with the ‘reprogramming’ of thoughts.
How Cognitive Restructuring Works
The idea behind cognitive restructuring is to deconstruct a patient’s beliefs, their thought patterns and their feelings regarding certain matters in a bid to improve mental health.
For instance then, cognitive restructuring is often used to help combat phobias. When someone suffers with a phobia, often they will find themselves having illogical thoughts regarding that trigger. If you’re deathly afraid of heights then, you might find yourself worrying that you’ll fall off – or even worrying that you’ll feel compelled to jump.
Of course in most cases, neither of these things are going to happen. Likewise, we have no reason to be afraid of spiders – even if we do find ourselves worrying that they might ‘jump into our mouths’.
Cognitive behavioral therapy restructures these thoughts and beliefs and replaces them with healthier ones.
The first step in cognitive restructuring is to assess the nature of your thoughts and to identify the specific damaging ruminations that are leading to your health problems. This is where mindfulness comes in as an incredibly powerful tool: simply sit quietly and allow yourself to experience your thoughts as they occur, taking note of what they are and letting them drift by ‘like clouds’.
Likewise, you might assess the kinds of thoughts you often find yourself having when you are in the situations that make you phobic.
From there, you can then begin the process of cognitive restructuring. You do this first by using ‘thought challenging’, wherein you simply ask yourself how likely your beliefs are to be accurate. Are you really going to fall if there are railings to keep you safe?
A more advanced strategy is ‘hypothesis testing’. Here, you simply test your belief through exposure to your fear. If you’re afraid of speaking in public because you think people will laugh, try purposefully allowing yourself to stutter while speaking to a large audience and see what happens.
Finally, use more mindfulness as you go about your day to simply remind yourself of your new beliefs and to keep your heartrate low and your mind calm.