Monica Max West
Counselling And Psychotherapy, Central London EC1 (Clerkenwell)
B.A. (Hons), M.A. (Dist) Psychotherapy, M.A. (Dist) Music Comp, Cert (Dist) Supervision
MBACP Senior Accredited Counsellor and Psychotherapist / MBACP Senior Accredited Supervisor
Central London
info "at" maxwest.co.uk

 
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Mindfulness (Awareness) And Cultivating Joy

 

Mindfulness

Mindfulness can be defined as an awareness of what is happening in and around us in the present moment. Mindfulness is very much a practice of being awake in the here and now. Too often, we can get lost in anxieties about the future and regrets about the past: we become 'lost in our thoughts', and this internal mental world can be one of distress and suffering. Getting 'lost' in our minds robs us of experiencing other realities than our thoughts, such as the realities of the beauty and pleasure in both internal and external life in the present moment. We may miss the pleasure that is available to us in the steps we take, the food we eat, the earth that supports us, the sky, the gifts of material abundance we enjoy, our friends, family, our health, etc. When we get 'lost' in the past and future, or in our thoughts, we may not notice these other realities, and we may miss out on the joy and well-being they can bring.

When we tune in to our internal reality, we may be in touch with suffering, not only in our minds but also in our hearts and bodies. This is especially true if we have experienced trauma. Our emotional worlds, our thoughts, and even our bodies may be in distress. This is why it is important to cultivate awareness of beauty and joy, in and around us, so that we can experience this positivity and appreciation alongside working to transform the suffering we may hold within ourselves. In effect, if we can be aware of suffering AND joy simultaneously (our grief AND the beauty of a tree), then our suffering will be eased. We will also widen and deepen our perception of what is 'real and true' in the now, instead of living within the restrictions and confines of our minds and our suffering.

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Practices For Cultivating Mindfulness And Joy

Slowing down is not necessary for mindfulness, but it can be a huge support. For example, when we walk quickly, we are usually not present in our bodies (although runners can experience a great joyful presence bodily). When we eat quickly, we usually do not savour or taste our food so well. When we rush around, we can often feel that time 'slips by': hours, days, weeks, months, even years. In all of these practices, therefore, slowing down may be a helpful tool.

It is in the nature of the mind to wander, so it is perfectly natural for our minds to stray from the intended focus during mindfulness practice. That is why it is called practice! It is very important to be gentle with ourselves: to simply notice when our minds have moved away, and to softly bring our attention back to the experience in the here and now. We can do this gently and compassionately, without 'beating ourselves up' for having a restless mind.

Multi-tasking is not conducive to mindfulness! For example, if we read a magazine while we brush our teeth, talk on the phone while we walk down the road, or write an email while we eat a sandwich, we are likely to lose awareness of brushing our teeth, walking or eating. Bringing our full attention to one thing at a time allows us to live fully in the present, and unites our minds with our bodies.

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Mindful Walking

To feel ourselves alive and present in our bodies and on planet earth can bring great pleasure. However, most of us use our walking simply to get from A to B, without enjoying or being present for the journey. We may be lost in thought while we walk, or talking on a telephone, or texting, or eating, or listening to music. The practice of mindful walking is a practice designed to cultivate our awareness of and pleasure in our walking.

One way to do this is to choose a journey (for example, from our home to the bus/train/office) and continually bring our attention to our steps during this journey. We may align our steps with our breathing to help this awareness. Very slow walking can be with one step per in-breath and one step per out-breath; or, if we are moving faster, we can take three or four steps per in-breath and out-breath. Sometimes, if the outbreath is longer than the inbreath, we will take more steps as we exhale.

If we have 'nowhere to go', we can practice mindful walking for the sake of doing mindful walking: we might walk in an aimless way, or between two chosen points, again, bringing our attention to the feel of our feet touching the earth, and the rhythm of our breathing.

Another practice that can work alongside breathing is the use of 'affirmations' or phrases to enhance our pleasure and awareness of the here and now. Examples that could be useful in walking meditation (each phrase in synch with each in-breath and out-breath) are:

  • I am here; I am home.
  • I am safe; I am well.

If these phrases don't feel right or are too emotionally difficult, softer ones - such as 'May I be safe; may I be well' - can be used instead. Also, phrases which are specific to healing work we may be focussed on can also be used, so long as they are positive. Examples might include, 'I am a person of value. I am a person of worth' or 'Every step brings peace. Every step brings joy'.

 
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Mindful Eating

Eating is one of the pleasures and gifts of life, yet we often eat in a state of 'forgetfulness' (the opposite of mindfulness). We are often not truly present to our food: the taste of it; the smell of it; the feel of it entering our bodies; how our bodies feel before, during and after eating; remembering where our food comes from. This is how many of us can get into the habit of over-eating, and/or of eating foods that are not nourishing to us. Mindful eating is a practice to enhance the pleasure, awareness and health of our eating. Below is a list of practical things we can do to make our eating more conscious. We can:

  • Acknowledge and appreciate our food before eating;
  • Take three breaths, eyes closed, and pause before eating;
  • Look at our food, contemplating its origins, before eating;
  • Once food is in our mouths, chew with eyes closed (to focus on taste, smell, sensation);
  • Extend the number of chews before swallowing (up to 30 or more); this mindfulness practice also aids digestion;
  • Hold our fork/spoon/other utensil with the non-dominant hand;
  • Put the utensil down between mouthfuls (as opposed to preparing the next bite while chewing);
  • Think 'I am aware that I am eating (name the food)' or 'I am enjoying eating (name the food)' whilst eating;
  • Eat with chopsticks (this slows eating and also usually encourages smaller mouthfuls)
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Mindful Breathing

A very simple mindfulness practice is that of awareness of breathing. Our breathing is always happening in the here-and-now. If we align our thinking (our minds) with our breathing, we will automatically be in the here-and-now.

Taking time to sit in a relaxed but alert position and simply focussing on our breathing can be a very helpful practice (for example, sitting on a cushion with legs crossed, back straight, hands on knees or lap; or sitting on a chair with a straight back - back not resting on the chair back - feet flat on the floor, hands on knees or lap). Some people like to do this daily for 20 minutes or more, either in the morning, or the evening, or both. We can start with a small practice of 5-10 minutes and see how this feels. Practicing frequently for short times can be very powerful, and even more useful than practicing infrequently for long periods. We can start with what is manageable and see what happens. A timer (such as those available on most mobile phones) is a useful practical tool so that we can relax into the time without having to keep track of the passing minutes. Closing our eyes is also often useful, as our sense of sight is most closely related to analytical thinking: closing the eyes can help us move away from thought. Many of us also find it easier to tune into our internal sensations, or sounds and smells around us, or our bodies, when we have our eyes closed.

Other or additional options for using a breathing practice include:

1. Pausing and breathing in and out, three times with eyes closed, every time we hear a bell. This could be a church bell, a siren, the telephone ringing, etc. Some people even choose to set a chime on their watch or mobile phone for this purpose. There are 'Mindfulness Bell' apps that can be downloaded for phones and computers, which are helpful reminders to pause, breathe, and be present. They can be set for any interval: hourly, every 20 minutes, as we choose.

2. Taking the opportunity to breathe and enjoy at any moment! We can take this opportunity whenever we choose. It may be helpful to associate three deep breaths with different regularly occurring activities, such as breathing deeply before stepping into the shower, before or after using the toilet, before putting the key in the door, before turning on the water. This introduces little 'mindful breaks' into our day and can bring a fresh energy to our lives and activities.

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Mindfulness In Everyday Life

The purpose of work is to enjoy the work, not simply to get the work done! What a revelation this statement may be to many of us. Too often, we may get caught up in a sense of life as an endless 'to do list', obligations, musts, tasks. This will flavour our lives with drudgery, future focus, and lack of joy. We can begin to think that we will have fun (relax) only once such-and-such is done: for example, 'I can relax once I finish the laundry, my emails, the shopping'.

Mindfulness is the practice of being present to, and hopefully enjoying, whatever we are doing. If we are truly present to the laundry, writing an email, doing the shopping, each of these activities can be a source of peace, engagement with life, even joy.

Using the phrase 'I am aware' or 'I am enjoying' in an activity can foster both awareness and pleasure. This phrase can be used with any activity: 'I am enjoying walking down the street'; 'I am enjoying putting on my coat'; 'I am enjoying brushing my teeth', or simply 'I am aware I am walking down the street' or 'I can feel my legs moving, my feet on the earth, as I walk down the street,' 'I can feel the fabric of my coat as I slide my arm into the sleeve of my coat.'

In this way, we can bring a tender, loving energy to tasks: for example, doing the washing up as if we were washing a baby, or vacuuming the floor with an appreciation for all the efforts and materials that have gone into making that floor.

Go mindfully, go beautifully, enjoy!

 

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