Experiments in mindfulness

Mindfulness is an incredibly important state & approach that can help us in many aspects of our daily life. It can bring us into the present, to be able to experience things more deeply, and also be used as a technique to help cope with our natural stress response and other more serious challenges we face. Personally though, I found it sometimes challenging to wrap my head around mindfulness and how to get into that state. Over time, and with the insights from some great people, I’ve found some things that work for me that I’d like to share with you.

First, let’s define “mindfulness” so that we’re all starting on the same page. Mindfulness, as defined by Wikipedia, is is the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment, which can be developed through the practice of meditation and other training. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mindfulness). So, meditation is one practice that is associated right off the bat with mindfulness. I’m not sure about you but I recall my first attempts at meditation years ago as a bit of a struggle. I wasn’t sure about what the experience was supposed to feel like. Ever since I was young I’ve been fortunate to have the ability to seemingly empty my head of any thoughts. I chuckle when I recall my parents asking me back then what I was thinking if they saw me daydreaming, and I would honestly answer “nothing!” which must have frustrated them. However, I believe that emptying your head of thoughts is not the same as meditation.

For me, meditating involves being present and acknowledging thoughts, feelings & experiences but not allowing them to consume you in the present moment. In effect, I was just pushing everything aside when I would try to empty my head of thoughts. Since understanding this, there have been times when I have achieved a state of mindfulness without consciously trying. Reflecting back on these times, I’ve found certain activities that have reliably worked for me to achieve a mindful state that I’d like to share with you.

Repetitive physical tasks

After high school, I worked in a warehouse picking & packing gift cards for a distributor. It was my time to make some money and it gave me time to continue to work on my music skills before starting University the following year. I enjoyed the physical nature of the work and the repetitive nature of the tasks I’d perform during the day. I’ve found that any physical activity that has a cadence & rhythm gives me some mental room to observe things from a more distant vantage point. You may notice this when your cleaning the house or performing other chores. The next time you’re involved in a similar situation, take a step back and try to observe whether your perspective feels different and if there seems to be a bit more mental breathing room to reflect on other matters.

Physical activities like running

Running has become a favourite exercise for me, along with long walks & hikes, to quickly get into a mindful state. Related to the first point about repetitive physical tasks, I believe it’s the rhythm of running & walking that contributes to achieving this state for me. Like the beating of a drum, there’s a resonance with every footfall that paces my thinking and slows things down for me. There’s an opportunity to really observe the world around you when you’re running the city streets or a trail. The deep breathing & extra oxygen that you inhale also help to clear the mental fog and provide some clarity to reflect.

Activities involving the senses, especially touch

I’ve always been drawn to activities that engage my sense of touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste. I think it’s the levels of detail that present themselves to you that allow for a mindful state. You can appreciate the touch or texture of an object or material, and then dive deeper into the details as you begin to appreciate all of its qualities. For me, baking bread has become one of my primary ways to get into a mindful state. Beyond the texture of the dough and the handling of the loaves, there’s a continual process of observation and adaptation that occurs while baking. Things may come to the forefront of your thoughts for a moment, but then they recede back to their proper place so that you can continue. It’s a continual learning process and the curiosity that these activities encourage help us to stay in the moment. If you’ve never tried baking, or sculpture or woodworking, I highly recommend trying your hand at it! Remember how much fun Play-Doh was when you were a kid?

Creativity

The activities I mention in the previous point all have creative aspects to them and for me, music is a great vehicle for getting into a mindful state. Whether it be listening to music, or performing music – there are so many qualities to music that engage your entire body. The memories and emotions that music evokes can take us on quite a journey. They can actually take us out of a mindful state depending on the depth & impact they have. Reflecting on them and appreciating them as they arise is perhaps one of the exercises that you can practice in order to stay in the moment. The rhythm that engages your entire body and makes you want to move & dance is also something to appreciate. Let go and allow the music to take you along for the ride. If you’re fortunate to have music as part of your life as a performer (and if you think you can’t play music, give it a try! Everyone has musical ability!), I think you’ll understand the amazing feeling that you get when you’re jamming with other musicians and you enter a complete state of flow. You are fully engaged & listening, happy, appreciating what you are creating together, and still able to guide and nudge the performance. I’ve also experienced this kind of flow in great discussions & brainstorming sessions. Some key qualities that allow me to embrace these moments fully include:

  1. No judgement, of myself or others.
  2. Being curious as an antidote to being fearful.
  3. Being thankful.

Check out this article from Nautilus on creativity & flow for some more information about this: https://nautil.us/issue/61/coordinates/what-time-feels-like-when-youre-improvising.

Gratitude

This last activity is a recent discovery for me and came to me through my friends in my Life Skills Coaching class this past year. When you start to identify things that you’re thankful for, you begin to realize how many things big & small occur in your life everyday. Everything, even the things that you identify as being bad, ends up being a learning experience and an opportunity for you to grow. And, these experiences almost always start with a person. Being thankful for those people in your life and those connections you have might be the most important thing. It’s those connections that enable us to grow & learn and be in the moment.

So these are activities that immediately come to mind when I think about how I can achieve a mindful state. I’ve come to realize though as I was writing this article that more and more, it’s becoming easier to achieve a mindful state no matter what I’m doing. Maybe that’s the idea… you eventually get to a point where the “training” you’ve done for yourself makes it easier to be mindful more often. I know how challenging it can be – it does take effort but the payoff can be very rewarding. So what helps you to be mindful?