If you’ve investigated mindfulness or mindful meditation (and you should) then you’ve probably come across the advice, “Sit quietly and listen to your breathing…”
At the risk of contradicting the experts, I want to suggest this might not be the best way to get started…
You find a quiet room and sit in a comfortable chair. You relax and take ten slow, deep breaths (like the book says), listening to the sounds they make. And then mysteriously, magically, wonderfully, you become in touch with your inner self and the world around you.
Okay, maybe you got further with your first mindfulness meditation than I did! Perhaps you started to “notice what you notice” and for a while it might have seemed to be working.
But sooner or later, didn’t your rational mind started to nag you?
- What am I doing here?
- How is it helping?
- When can I stop?
- Is it lunchtime yet?
I’m a down-to-earth kind of guy: I value logic, reason, order and structure. New Age and woo-woo stuff doesn’t generally ‘resonate’ with me. So when I talk about mindfulness, you can be sure that I have approached it objectively and with more than a healthy dose of cynicism.
Nevertheless, while I was recovering from my depressive illness several years ago (see my About page), I was advised by my mental health professional to investigate mindfulness.
As it turns out, mindfulness is not as weird, strange or ‘out there’ as I first thought. It’s actually pretty simple:
What IS mindfulness?
You could Google “mindfulness” and get many different opinions. At the time of writing, Google has around 39,900,000 results!
But I think it’s actually really simple:
Mindfulness = “Noticing what’s going on.”
I know. It sounds too easy. But it’s not.
Why does it matter?
Mindfulness matters, not because of what it is, but because of what it does to our thinking patterns. Typically, we spend a lot of our lives thinking about the past:
- What has happened to us
- Things people said to us
- What people said (or might have said) about us
- Places we have been
- Things we have done
- What we wish we had done
- Things we wish we hadn’t done
We also invest a lot of thought into the future:
- Where we are going later
- What we might do tomorrow
- What could go wrong if…
- How we can get what we want
Yes, these patterns of thinking can be constructive (What did I learn? What are my goals?) but they can also be destructive (Why did he insult me? What if I fail?) The value of mindfulness is in steering us back into the only time-zone when we have any real control: now.
In the present, right in this moment, we can:
- focus on what’s currently true
- consider who we are (without judgement)
- notice what we think and feel
- examine our surroundings
- choose our responses
- enjoy the moment
So what’s the secret?
I guess there’s no ‘right’ way to be mindful. But the lady who first taught me about mindfulness had the wisdom to see that a no-nonsense old cynic like me (!) was unlikely to discover its benefits by relaxing in a chair, lying on a couch, climbing a mountain or going on a forest retreat.
She saw that I needed (and I recommend to you) an introduction to mindfulness involving an everyday activity I already knew. And so she explained how to…
…take a shower!
Whether you’re already using mindfulness or you’re a total novice, you should try this.
Using mindfulness in the shower is great because
- most distractions (people, technology) are removed
- no-one can see (or judge) what you’re doing
- there’s lots to focus on
- if it doesn’t work, you get clean anyway!
When I take a ‘mindful shower’, I often choose just one of my senses to focus on. The easiest seem to be hearing and touch, but you can experiment with smell and sight (I’d avoid taste if I were you.) I try to separate and pick out as many individual experiences as I can. For example:
Hearing – I notice:
- water landing in the bath
- the sounds changing as I move around
- muffled sounds of water landing on my head
- clearer sounds as water lands on, or in, my ears
- the squelch of the gel in my hands
- the rubbing of the shampoo in my hair
- the rubbing and the slip-slap-slop of washing my skin
- my feet squeaking in the bath when I turn
- background noises through the open window (dogs barking, cars passing)
- the dull rubbing of the towel
- the click of the light pull
Touch – I notice:
- the hard bath under my feet
- the temperature of the water (and how it feels different on my head and my back)
- water running down my face and body
- the texture and shape of the bottles of shampoo and gel
- how my hair feels to my fingers: it changes as I wash it
- the slippery feel and the after-tingle of my peppermint shower gel
- feeling cleaner and fresher
- the friction of the towel
- the bathroom mat under my feet when I get out
Sometimes I just open all my senses up and see how many different experiences I notice. When you’ve done this a few times you can go on for ages (don’t hog the bathroom!)
How does it help?
“How can listening to squelchy soap in the shower impact your Self-Improvement?”
It’s a fair question.
When you focus on what is going on around you and how you are interacting with your surroundings, you discover that ideas and projects you were processing or getting worried about often slip further towards the back of your thoughts, leaving valuable mind-space for new and creative thinking.
But mindfulness is much more than just a distraction technique. Once you master the basics of refocusing your attention to the here-and-now, you can begin to turn your observations from your outer world towards your inner self. You start to become more in touch with your thoughts and emotions, noticing what you are feeling and hearing on the inside. These valuable insights can help you respond more appropriately to situations and develop useful skills and disciplines.
Thinking about what you’re thinking about
Being ‘inwardly mindful’ is essentially a form of meta-cognition: knowing what you know, thinking about your thinking, noticing what you notice. It’s like having another ‘you’…being able to step outside yourself and observe yourself, like you were another person.
I believe this extra layer of thinking is enormously useful for Self-Improvement. When you are more aware of how you process, react, respond and relate to your circumstances in the moment, your priorities for personal development often come into clearer focus.
Of course, you don’t necessarily need to follow a formal mindfulness practice to gain this extra perspective (I was significantly meta-cognitive before I’d even heard of mindfulness.) But mindfulness provides a useful tool for “seeing inside the box” of your thoughts, values, beliefs, rules, motivations and sensitivities.
Apart from showering, I have had success with other mindful activities you might like to try:
- mindfulness meditation – I don’t think it’s a good place to start but I do use a basic seated meditation (and I do start with those deep breaths!) The instructions in the book Mindfulness for Dummies are as good as any.
- walking the dog – another great opportunity to focus on what you can see, hear, smell (except, well you know…) and feel. And no, you don’t need the dog (or borrow one!)
- mealtime – I’m currently using mindfulness to lose weight. Having lost 17lbs already, I’m writing an eBook explaining my methods. Email me if you’re interested.
- bedtime – if I’m not yet relaxed by bedtime, I use a mindful “body scan” (again, see Mindfulness for Dummies) to find and remove any remaining stress.
Do you have any experience with mindfulness? If so, please “Leave A Reply” below and share your experience with other readers. Alternatively, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Or is this new to you?
What are you waiting for?
(…and then tell us how it went.)
To our continued Self-Improvement and success!
The Self-Improvement Guy