It’s only natural that our brains are in a constant state of alert due to the disruption and uncertainty caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has continued into the new year. Not only do we need to take steps to protect our bodies from the virus, we also need to take care of our minds to deal with the stress and anxiety occurring as a result. One approach that has been shown to be beneficial in dealing with this is mindfulness.
What exactly is mindfulness?
When I get asked this question, I always quote Jon Kabat Zinn, one of the leading figures in bringing mindfulness to Western audiences. He says it is “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.”
I came to mindfulness was because it was recommended to me by my doctor. I'd suffered from anxiety that, at times, could be quite debilitating. He suggested a book: Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World, co-authored by Professor Mark Williams, the Founding Director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre. I managed to get a place on the Centre’s eight-week MBCT (Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy) course in September 2013. Following several years of daily practice and seeing the positive impact it had in my life, I later trained as a mindfulness teacher.
By attending the weekly group sessions and doing the practices and meditations in my original mindfulness course, I could see my anxiety calming little by little. I was more present in the moment, less reactive to difficult situations, and generally calmer and more focused. I was able to observe the working of my own mind and see thoughts as subjective mental events, rather than an objective view of the world. Understanding the two modes of mind, ‘doing’ and ‘being’, and being able to shift the gear between the two, helped me better navigate daily life. It’s not some kind of quick fix. It takes daily practice (meditation) to help rewire the brain towards calmer, wiser ways of thinking and approaching life.
How can mindfulness help us get going in 2021 mid-pandemic?
We're all concerned about Coronavirus. Questions like ‘Will I/loved ones be okay?’, ‘What impact will this have on my learning and/or work?’, and ‘When will this be over?’ are never far from our minds.
Right now, we don’t have all the definitive answers and while mindfulness doesn't serve to make everything better, it can help us develop ways to feel okay during times of uncertainty. Mindfulness can help offer moments to pause and step back from what's going on around us, all the information we're receiving, and our own thoughts. Rather than getting trapped in ‘doing’ mode and trying to problem solve tricky emotional situations, we learn to stand back, be present in the moment, and observe. Therefore, if we choose to respond, we do so with the calmest and wisest approach to a given situation.
What are some ways to embrace mindfulness, starting today?
The best way to learn how to be mindful is by attending a course. This will give you a deep understanding of ‘doing’ and ‘being’ modes, the characteristics of mindfulness, and the practices covered. There are many courses being offered online and many apps that can help too. To help you get started today, here are some suggestions for beginning the new year with a mindful perspective:
Consider intentions rather than goals. A lot of what we learn through mindfulness is training the focus of attention. In order to do this, we need to be clear about our intentions. Having clear intentions sets where the attention goes. Setting your intentions at the beginning of the year is often more favourable than using language of goals. Rather than setting specific metrics that can be used to beat yourself up, intentions allow us to have more flexible parameters that can be adapted as situations evolve and change.
Be gentle and kind to yourself. Self-compassion is so important. Very often we can be our own worst enemies with how we talk to ourselves. Given how much is going on in the world right now, give yourself a pat on the back for what you are able to do. Practising self-care and compassion has the added benefit that it makes us kinder and more understanding to other people too. It has a positive upward cycle effect for us and those around us. It’s a win-win.
Reconnect with your body and reengage the senses. Mindfulness is great at helping increase focus and reduce distraction and rumination. Simple ‘everyday’ mindfulness practices, like mindfully preparing a cup of tea or coffee, are an easy way to do this. For example, going through the steps of boiling the kettle and pouring the water into the cup, smelling it as it brews and feeling the heat through the cup, adding milk and noticing the colour change, to finally tasting the drink. This helps focus the mind and train it gently to focus on one thing at a time.
Although the benefits of mindfulness are well documented, it’s important to check that it’s the right approach if you’re currently experiencing any mental distress. Please always check in with your doctor or clinician before undertaking a mindfulness course. Remember that talking things through with friends, family members, or one of the many support lines out there can help if you feel things are becoming difficult.