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.
Meditation is something that we’re constantly being encouraged to use. Every self-help guru, every highly successful individual and even many athletes trumpet its many benefits and the research too seems to back-up its value.
So why don’t more people practice it?
The main problem for most of us is that it’s really rather daunting, obtuse and complicated. Meditation is ultimately about reaching enlightenment and an inner peace right? Sounds a bit heavy for a Friday evening!
The real question for many people then is where to start. This article will provide you with a good starting point and help you with your first meditative experience. From there, you should feel a little more confident to try it again in future…
Some Tips to Begin With
The first tip is to set yourself a timer for 10 minutes. 10 minutes is a short enough amount of time that most of us will be able to fit it into our busy schedules and by setting an alarm you prevent yourself from having to keep checking the clock to see how much longer you have – this is not conducive to meditation as you might imagine.
The next tip is to sit comfortably in a chair or cross legged. You don’t want to lie down for fear of falling asleep but you should be comfortable.
The next thing you’re going to do is to focus. This can mean focusing on your breath, or repeating a mantra (a word of your choice) over and over. This will be your ‘anchor’ and you will come back to this whenever your mind starts to wander.
If you struggle with these anchors, another option is to watch a flame. Lighting a candle and watching it can be a surprisingly effective form of meditation.
Now just ‘be’ for 10 minutes. The mistake many people make here is to try and force themselves to have a ‘still mind’ devoid of thoughts. This is almost impossible for a beginner and will lead to nothing but stress.
Instead, we’ll take the mindfulness approach of simply letting the mind wander. When it does, make a note of it and simply focus back on your anchor. This removes the stress and gives you a safe environment in which to practice directing your attention inwards. The same goes for itching and coughing – just let it happen and then return.
Try to repeat this three times a week for a couple of months and see what happens… You’ll be glad you did!