The Mindfulness Toolkit
One of the more common things that I remind people is that we don’t experience reality, we experience our thinking about reality.
As the old saying goes, ‘perception is reality’. When we dig under the hood a little more there, what it is ultimately saying is that what we accept as being ‘reality’ is actually an internal construct made up from the thoughts and feeling we experience around it.
If we take anxiety as an example; anxiety is an internalised future state where you expect the worst to happen. Your mind is able to make a meaning from an event that something bad is going to happen, and it does this so convincingly that your body responds as though it is really happening. The Amygdala part of the brain, the controls the fight, flight and freeze function, kicks in and as a result, you experience this feeling of anxiety.
The irony is that so many people believe anxiety is outside of their control. “I don’t have any power over the anxiety” is a common thing I’ve heard despite the fact that the anxiety is being generated by them.
This is where a regular mindfulness practice becomes useful.
There are several key reasons why I promote a mindfulness practice, especially around any issue that involves maladaptive thinking styles.
Firstly, the mindfulness practice will bring you present to the current moment. Instead of being forced into a negative future (anxiety) or dwell on a negative past (depression), it allows you to practice being in the now – the only moment that actually does exist.
Secondly, the mindfulness practice will allow you to practice becoming an observer of your own thoughts. Instead of hooking into the thought and placing energy into it and believing it as ‘real’, you can begin to detach from the thought and feeling and recognise that it is just a thought. As far as I know, no one has yet to die from having a thought.
Thirdly, a regular mindfulness practice is like a mental gym exercise. In much the same way you would go to gym to build physical fitness, a regular mindfulness practice helps to build thought fitness. When you can choose which distraction to focus on (the unhelpful thought or the breath), it can help to develop a fundamental difference in the relationship that you have with your thinking.
This is why it is important to practice daily; if you attempt to use mindfulness as a way to cope with painful and distressing thoughts AS they happen, it is unlikely to be as successful. You wouldn’t expect to build immense muscle after one gym session nor be able to lift something 10 times heavier. It takes an investment but it is one that will pay off enormously.
Watch this short video where I talk about these three main benefits further.
The obvious question then is how do you do ‘mindfulness’?
What I tend to find happens is that people start off too ambitious and invest in 15 – 30 minute blocks of time. As a beginner, this might become too challenging and so I always encourage people to start off with simple five minute exercises.
Often what I will do with people when they come to see me in my room is to do this simple exercise.
1. Begin by listening to the sounds in the room. Bring in a sense of curiosity with this, like you’re a scientist who is hearing these sounds for the first time. Allow them to come to you, like an ambient soundscape and just notice each sound as it comes forward into your awareness.
2. Shift your focus now to your breath and notice the feeling of the air coming in and leaving the body. Notice the feeling of the chest rising and falling. Notice the feeling of the warm air as it leaves the nose.
3. As this happens, you may notice thoughts coming and going, trying to ‘hijack’ the mind. As the thoughts come in, notice and acknowledge them, let them go, and gently bring your focus back to the breath.
4. As you do this, you may choose to count the breathes, or to imagine the thoughts passing by like cars passing by a building or leaves floating down a stream. Just allow the thoughts to come and go, and bring the focus back to the breath.
5. Continue this exercise working through a cycle of breathing. Each time the thought tries to hijack the mind, gently redirect your focus back to the breath. This is training the mind which ‘distraction’ you wish to focus on; the thought or the breath.
6. After a few moments, you can begin to end in the same way you began, bringing the focus back to the sounds in the room. Allowing those sounds to step forward and engage with them with a sense of curiosity.
7. After a while, you can allow your focus to come back to the room, stretch and allow the eyes to open.
These simple steps will allow you to ground yourself into the now, to become the observer of your own thoughts, and to train your mind as to which distraction it can focus on.
This is, of course, not the only mindfulness exercise although this is one that you can do absolutely anywhere since you always carry your breath with you.
Personally, I like to do a mindfulness practice to the sound of the ocean. Some may find a mindful experience in going for a walk and immersing themselves in music.
An interesting point to make is that many people find doing mindfulness exercises ‘relaxing’.
It is important to state that this is NOT the goal of the mindful practice. If you find that, it is a bonus however the aim is never to change the feeling, simply to notice it, acknowledge it, to let it be until it naturally passes on it’s own.
This is a point that I think can often confuse people who use mindfulness as a ‘coping mechanism’. What they’re then doing is using mindfulness to push away uncomfortable thoughts and feelings – or in psychological terms, experiential avoidance – however the goal is really to just observe the thoughts and feelings and recognise that in this moment, they might feel intense however we can learn to sit with them while still bringing our focus to what matters.
Connecting with your Awareness
This is really about connecting to AWARENESS of the thoughts and feelings, to notice them, and to not put power into pushing them away. I think many people accept that the uncomfortable thoughts and feelings they experience can often feel like it is outside of their control, so investing energy in pushing them away becomes a futile exercise and only seems to make them strong because of the focus we are placing on them. By learning to notice them, let them be and to do what is meaningful to you and aligned with your values can begin to shift the relationship you have with those thoughts and feelings.
Ensure you bring in self compassion too. There will be some days where you are able to easily bring your focus to the breath and then other days where the thoughts just seem overwhelming. This is part of the experience and this is where bringing in some self compassion can help to reduce that frustration.
As someone once said to me, there is an irony here that when you learn that you have more control over your thoughts and feelings than you realised, those thoughts and feelings don’t seem to have as much of a sting anymore. We may not be able to completely eliminate them, but we can begin to shift our relationship with them.
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