During 2015, I had a lot going on in my life, professionally and personally. All of the changes and uncertainty triggered a wave of anxiety and for several months I endured unpleasant symptoms, including tightness in my chest and mild feelings of panic. Eventually I decided to hunt for a solution to my perpetual unease.
Meditation came to mind as a potential option — those guys in orange robes sitting on mountaintops looked calm to me. I fancied some of that inner peace for myself. After a week of research I discovered Andy Puddicombe, a Brit who left these shores in 1994 looking for answers and returned a Buddhist monk. He learnt a life-changing technique and wanted to share it with the world through his company Headspace. I was intrigued, so I downloaded the free app on my phone and started practicing mindfulness.
What is mindfulness?
According to Harvard research, we spend half our lives lost in thought. For many people this involves dwelling on the past or worrying about the future; activities which increase stress and anxiety. The study concludes we are happiest when fully engaged in the activities we are undertaking and suggests that a wandering mind is a cause of unhappiness, not a symptom. This has huge implications: if we can train our mind to stay in the here-and-now, we will actually become happier!
Here’s where mindfulness comes into play. Mindfulness is all about spending more time focussed on the present moment, rather than the past or the future. Simple exercises teach you to identify when your mind wanders off and how to gently bring it back to now. Over time, it wanders less and less, leaving you feeling quieter, calmer and happier.
To give an example, imagine washing dishes or driving to work. These dull activities are ideal for day-dreaming. How will that presentation go later? Did I say something stupid in that meeting yesterday? Why haven’t we bought a dishwasher yet? You don’t have to concentrate on what you’re doing, so your brain wanders off to other topics.
For someone well-practiced in mindfulness, the above scenario might play out quite differently. When driving to work, they might notice how subtle movements in the steering wheel affects the motion of the car; the feeling of connection between their hands and the machine. They notice the leaves in the trees are turning slightly orange or the way the road looks slick after morning rain. When washing dishes they might enjoy the sensation of warm water on their hands, marvelling at the countless bubbles that fill the bowl, as though it’s the first time they’ve ever seen them. There’s no spare time for worrying about the future when you’re fully engaged and amazed by the present.
If that all sounds a bit far-fetched or hippy-like, don’t worry. You won’t suddenly be amazed by your own fingers or overwhelmed with a desire to stroke trees. But like countless others over the previous millennia, mindfulness may provide a happier way of living. It’s probably worth a go, right?
I downloaded the Headspace app and began trying the first ten sessions, which are free. Each session lasts for ten minutes and follows a similar structure, narrated by the surprisingly soothing tones of Andy himself.
First, you sit somewhere comfortable (and quiet) and take some deep breaths. After closing your eyes, you spend a while trying to actually feel your body sitting in the chair and noticing all the sounds around you. Andy then guides you through “scanning” your body, where you consider each part of your body individually from head to toe and notice how its feeling (tired, sore, relaxed, whatever). The idea is not to worry about these feelings, just to acknowledge them. Finally you enter the main part of the exercise, which focuses on your breath.
Breathing is the cornerstone of the Headspace mindfulness training. By focusing on something we normally ignore completely, we learn to notice when our mind wanders off and how to bring our attention back again. Andy teaches you to observe each breath individually, counting them as they pass (to help keep focus). His dulcet tones regularly interrupt to help you notice when you’re distracted by other thoughts.
I felt a bit silly during my first session, sat quietly in my kitchen with headphones in my ears. But the ten minutes passed quickly and I found myself looking forward to trying it again the next day. My mind wandered frequently at first and I found that frustrating. But the sessions teach you to accept this and realise that you can’t stop thoughts entirely.
By the time I began my fifth session, my background anxiety had already reduced significantly. Now, perhaps this was a placebo-effect kicking in, but honestly I didn’t care. I was already feeling more content and definitely knew this habit was here to stay.
Once I complete the free ten sessions, I subscribed to Headspace and started progressing through the “packs”. The beginners’ section was 30 sessions long and is designed to get you familiar with the process and work around some common problems. After a while you’re allowed to extend the session length; I opted for 15 minutes as the right amount of time.
Once you get past the beginners’ section, there’s a variety of differently themed packs to choose from, ranging in length from 10-30 sessions. Generally speaking, the structure of the sessions remains identical, but the theme affects the advice Andy gives you at the start and the end of the session.
Eventually you can progress to the “Expert” section, where Andy slowly reduces the amount he tells you until you spend almost the entire session in silence. Something that probably seems impossible when you first start out.
It’s not an exaggeration to say mindfulness has transformed my life. I’m a sporadic meditator these days, although I keep meaning to do it more often (for maintenance). My mind feels much more robust than it ever has before.
More than anything, mindfulness has taught me to be accepting of the different thoughts and feelings that pass through my mind. My brain is definitely more focussed on the present moment than it ever was before, but not perfectly so — I still daydream from time-to-time. My anxiety has disappeared and I find stressful situations have less impact on me. Rather than becoming totally consumed by a feeling, I tend to notice it more abstractly - like I’m an outside observer. It’s odd, but very powerful.
I would recommend mindfulness to anyone. What have you got to lose by giving it a go?