I started practicing mindfulness and meditation over 12 years ago and I had no idea that it would change my life, simply by taking the time to observe my thoughts.
I stumbled across it by chance really, not knowing much about it, and having a fair few misconceptions about it being creepy, flowery, and all the rest (I know that nowadays most wouldn’t think that…but that was 12 years ago after all!)
At the time, I was a typical young work-hard play-hard Londoner, who also suffered from insomnia and anxiety.
I didn’t want the anxiety, and looking back I spent a lot of energy trying to push it away, by filling my life with a long list of things to do and achieve – my days were packed, from the moment I woke up at 5am to go running, to the moment I went to sleep around midnight, after a long day of working and socialising.
Eventually, my levels of anxiety were preventing me from enjoying my life at all, despite doing all the things that I thought I needed to be happy – exercising, socialising a lot, going on regular city breaks, taking part in charity runs, and so on.
Learning to meditate, I learnt to stop. To stop, observe, and create some space around my experience. To stop, and get off this cycle of constant doing. To stop, and learn to just BE.
It was extremely hard at first, as I became aware of how all over the place my mind was, and how restless my body was becoming when I tried to stay still. I thought that I wasn’t any good at meditation (I thought everyone else was, but not me…I was just too restless for it) and that I should probably give up, but somehow I stuck at it.
I became aware of difficult emotions, such as the fear that was sitting underneath all these things I was trying to achieve (fear of not being good enough, fear of not being liked by others), and a lack of kindness to my body which had been sending me signals of pain and tension that I had ignored. I started to become an observer of my own mind, its activity and the thought pathways it follows.
I realised then that a lot of the anxiety I was experiencing was self-inflicted. Yes, I had a stressful job, but the way I was thinking about it and relating to it didn’t help. Telling myself all day that I was stressed, that I would never manage to do all the work I had to do, that it was unfair that I had so much work, only added more heavy weight on me.
I realised that I didn’t have to keep thinking in the same way, and doing the same things; that stress is part of life, but it doesn’t have to be distressing. I started reframing how I saw my life, taking full responsibility for it rather than complaining.
Mindfulness can help us release stress and physical tension, by learning to be with and soften into our experience. But more importantly, it allows us to develop self-knowledge. Relaxing your mind & body can help you in multiple ways.
In my case, I realised that I was not as extraverted as I thought, and that I do need some time on my own to recharge, and keep emotionally and physically fit. I also became aware of my values, and how not living up to it was adding stress to my life. This led to a change of career, and a well-needed change of lifestyle. From advertising, I started working with people as a coach & mindfulness teacher, and I moved closed to nature.
So, how can you become an observer of your own mind?
The first way to do that is to spend a dedicated amount of time each day, say 10 minutes, doing NOTHING. By nothing, I really mean just sitting there, by yourself, and doing nothing, not checking your phone or reading a magazine or painting your nails. Just enjoying being – as my teacher says, just being ornamental rather than always striving to be productive and useful – and observe, with an open curiosity, where your mind goes.
The second way is to practice continuous writing. This practice, adapted from Julia Cameron’s book ‘The artist way’, is essentially a ‘brain dump’, or a spill of our mental chatter on paper. Take 3 pages of an A5 notebook, and write down everything that goes through your head, without stopping, no matter what type of thoughts you are having. So if you think ‘’I do not know what to write’ -> this is a thought, so you have to put it down on paper. This writing is not meant to be re-read and certainly not a work of art. So go ahead, write down, it allows you to take a load of your mind and become aware of your thought patterns.
Finally, the last way is to spend some time practicing Mindfulness meditation. Learning to focus your attention on your breath or the sensations of your body, and, as soon as you notice that your mind has wandered, you bring it back gently to the breath or the body. This allows you to notice how often your mind wanders off, and what it wanders onto.
So, what topics does your mind think about? Does it go back to the past, is it in the present or does it fast-forward to the future? Does it think about things you actually enjoy thinking about? It is scattered or obsessed with one topic? Can you do anything about the topic? Are you having creative thoughts, or are you just ruminating?
Self-knowledge gives us more choice about the thoughts we decide to entertain and the actions we decide to perform. That choice is freedom.
You can learn more about Mindfulness in the LiveMore app with the track: The Path to Mindfulness.