You’ve read about it in the news, you see it discussed on social media and you may even have tried it yourself from time to time - but what exactly is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is increasingly coming into the mainstream as a method of self-improvement and a way to feel happier and more stress-free in a world of over-stimulation. Benefits range from a greater enjoyment of life’s pleasures to deeper friendships and even better physical health, the techniques taught by mindfulness practitioners can change your life.
Mindfulness exercises are sometimes written off by those who don't understand the practice, and all sorts of claims have been made about its effectiveness. However, with hundreds of thousands of people around the world finding benefit in the practice, it’s clear that it has the power to transform lives.
In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the ways in which mindfulness can improve your mental well-being, and we’ll also suggest some exercises, tips and tricks for new mindfulness practitioners - no matter how busy you or your mind might be!
One of the main ways in which mindfulness can make your life better is by equipping you with the tools you need to lead a satisfied life, free from dark moments and devoid of the stresses that seem inevitable in the modern world.
By teaching yourself to notice the good things that happen to you, your mindset changes over time. Rather than focus on the negatives, mindfulness can teach you to enjoy events, experiences and objects as they come into your life and be more happy, more often.
People who practice mindfulness exercises on a regular basis tend to find that their friendships, family connections and personal relationships improve through an increased capacity to listen and learn.
And that’s not all. Mindfulness is often thought of as being a tool to improve mental health rather than physical health, and while that’s where its primary benefit definitely lies, studies have found that those who practice mindfulness on a regular basis find they experience less stress, reduce their blood pressure and even get relief from conditions which cause long-term pain.
Depending on how much time you have, where you are and what you want to achieve, different mindfulness techniques are right for different people. Here, we’ll take a look at some of the most popular mindfulness exercises and how they can help you.
Taking in oxygen is essential for our day-to-day survival, and we do it hundreds and hundreds of times a day.
Yet we barely ever notice that we’re carrying out this task, despite its importance to our health and well-being. Taking a short amount of time to notice yourself doing this is an excellent way to become mindful of how the marvellous human body knows exactly the way to take in life and energy and use it to keep us going. It's also a great way to keep you grounded when things feel like they're getting too much.
Firstly, just breathe as you would normally, but keep it slow. Feel free to take your time: in fact, you can allocate anything up to ten seconds for one cycle. Breathing in using your nose and then breathing out using your mouth is the ideal way to do it for this exercise.
Soon, and perhaps after a little practice, you’ll find that you let go of your usual thoughts and focus increasingly on your breathing. Remember, the aim here is awareness: all you want to do is focus on something important to you (in this case breathing) and the way in which breathing gives you life and your body processes oxygen, rather than dwell on stressful problems from your day.
We see and experience so many objects, sights and sounds all around us, every day. Whether we’re driving to work past endless advertisements on billboards or just walking down a busy street with shops on all sides, the world is saturated with images and we end up seeing everything but failing to notice anything.
Not only that, we’re all so busy rushing from one place to the next that we don’t have a second to observe the many beautiful things all around us every day. Here’s where mindfulness can help: by taking some time to yourself to learn how to focus on and connect with what you find around you, you start to appreciate things more.
For this exercise, it’s a good idea to choose a still, naturally existing object that you can see clearly. It doesn’t need to be nearby: it could be a flower in your garden or a star in the sky. Then, just look at it for a while, and pour all the energy you would usually use to notice the clutter of the world around you into looking at this one object. Look all over it, search it, and explore every nook and cranny of it with your eyes. After a minute or two, it will be all you can think about - and you’ll feel connected with your environment like never before.
Part of the point of mindfulness is to not think about your own problems, and one of the best ways to do that is to draw influence and comfort from the things around you rather than the thoughts in your own head.
Hearing and appreciating other things is a real skill that takes practice, especially in a world where it can feel like we’re too busy to do anything that involves reflection.
This mindful listening exercise can help bring that skill out in you. We tend to associate certain songs with certain memories and behaviours from the past, and by studying a piece of music as a standalone sound, we can learn to let go of those associations and build an ability to enjoy things in the present.
For this, choose a song you’ve not heard before. Once it’s playing, try not to be judgemental: you’re not scoring it based on personal preference, but are simply allowing yourself to feel the impact of the notes, tone and rhythm.
You could even split the song up into its constituent parts. For example, if there are lots of singers performing, try to zoom in on one voice, then another, in your mind. This will help you learn to analyse what is happening to you in the present, rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.
When you're feeling stressed, another useful exercise is to challenge yourself to hone in on five different sounds around you to bring yourself back into the moment and leave those negative stories behind.
In this day and age, we all have a lot of objects - but the more things you have, the harder it gets to appreciate them.
And while abundance has its benefits, if we don’t keep our feelings in check it can significantly hamper our abilities to appreciate what we have and to feel grateful. But once again, that’s where mindfulness can help.
For this exercise, make a quick list of a few things you appreciate in your day-to-day life. They don’t have to be anything significant or complicated: in fact, it’s probably best to choose simple things, such as the mug you drink your coffee from or the dog who wags their tail at the gate down the street every morning.
Once you’ve got your list, start to think about these things in detail and examine their provenance, history and value. Think in detail about the positive impact they have on your life, how they make your day easier, and how they can be preserved for others to enjoy.
Try not to think about anything else or let related thoughts stream into your head. For example, if you focus on a flower, don’t think about how much gardening you have to do later: just think about the flower, its beauty, and its value to you.
Finding the right environment and setting for these mindfulness exercises can be tricky. Virtual reality transports you to a variety of calming environments where you can practice visualisation, breathing and listening. With the Mindfulness VR course, you can practice these techniques in a calming forest, in a peaceful field over London or even looking over water on a lake.
For a new starter, mindfulness can sometimes seem a little overwhelming - especially with all the new things to learn. But with our tips and tricks, it doesn’t have to be that way.
Where: depending on the activity, mindfulness can be practised anywhere, as all you need is the power of your own mind. There are exercises and techniques designed for those who find themselves in stressful situations, and they can be really useful.
However, the real stress-busting power of mindfulness lies in the abilities you gain by practising ahead of time. By doing your exercises in a private room with no distractions or in virtual reality, you’ll be able to get better more quickly and develop your skills.
When: while mindfulness can be practised whenever you need to, where possible it’s wise to only practice mindfulness at a time when you won’t be interrupted.
Some people find that the best time to do their exercises is in the morning before they get up to go to work or start their day, as this is when they are most clear-headed and haven’t had a chance to immerse themselves in the stresses of the day. If that works for you then mindfulness can be like breakfast for the soul, useful when setting yourself up for the day.
But that doesn’t work for everyone. Some people prefer to do their mindfulness exercises in the evening as a way of winding down after the day, while some take time out of their lunch break to do a spot of mindfulness. It’s all about trying out different times and finding which one works for you, so don’t be afraid to experiment - and if it doesn’t work for you the first few times you do it, keep at it. Persistence is more important than details like time and place!