How many times have you caught yourself doing things without thinking about them through the day? Like driving home but not really remembering the specifics of the route you took, or walking into a room without noticing a new piece of furniture?
Or how many times have you ignored the sensations in your mind or body until they become painful and can no longer be ignored?
Many of us these days live ‘in our heads’ — focussed only on the never-ending thoughts and to-do lists that run through our minds. This is normal. It’s perfectly human that our minds run at all times (often called our ‘monkey mind’).
Yet today’s fast-paced world means that our attention is more divided than ever and the pace of life and how we live it can often keep us from connecting with our deeper selves, including the messages our bodies send us about our health.
Just think of how many times you’ve ignored feelings of discomfort (either emotional or physical) until it’s too late and you’re either having a breakdown (emotional) or in the GP’s office trying to figure out how your back got so bad (physical).
For many people in today’s information-driven world, ignoring both our physical and emotional state has become the norm. This manifests itself in increased stress, which is the number one proxy killer in the developed world, responsible for chronic conditions including cardiovascular dysfunction, depression, anxiety, and autoimmune disorders.
The trouble is, most of us feel that we are too busy to take the time to slow down and listen — truly listen — to our own bodies and minds. We feel that it’s going to take a lot of time, it’s boring, we just can’t do it because we’re not calm enough or patient enough.
But what we fail to realise is that the stakes are simply too high for us to not listen to ourselves.
If we don’t take the time to slow down and connect with our bodies and minds, it can lead to burnout, a serious condition caused by prolonged stress.
Burnout is characterised by physical symptoms such as headaches and intestinal issues, as well as emotional exhaustion, leaving sufferers feeling drained and unable to cope.
Fortunately, it doesn’t have to get to that point. We have free tools available to help each and every one of us before that happens, and they’re called mindfulness and meditation.
You may have heard of these terms before. They’ve been bounded about by business magazines in the past decade, where tech leaders and visionaries tout their effectiveness.
But many ordinary people have the misconception that in order to gain the benefits of meditation and mindfulness, you must invest a lot of time and money or that it’s a big ordeal that necessitates going on a silent retreat to Tibet.
While such travel experiences can certainly be transformative, it’s important to dispel the myth that mindfulness and meditation aren’t for everyone. Because they absolutely are, and they needn’t require the investment of a lot of time to start seeing benefits.
And best of all, they’re both activities you can do absolutely for free, at any time that is convenient to you. All that’s needed is to find a place to sit, close your eyes, and connect in with your breath, thoughts and feelings. Doing this for as little as five or 10 minutes a day makes a difference to your mental, emotional and physical wellbeing.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? It absolutely is.
But, to many, it can equally seem like an insurmountable challenge, because it requires that you sit still, away from modern distractions, faced with nothing but your own thoughts. This can be trickier and more daunting than many people care to admit.
So let’s break it down.
First off, let’s define what mindfulness and meditation actually are. Meditation is the practice of sitting still, with your own breath while focusing the mind to pay attention to the thoughts and sensations going through your mind.
Mindfulness is intrinsically related to meditation, as it is the focussed awareness of the present moment. By practicing mindfulness, you’re observing your feelings and experiences in the present moment, without judgement or attachment to them. You are simply noticing and becoming aware.
You can practice mindfulness within meditation, but also in your daily life, as you move your face away from your mobile device, and onto the world around you, noticing what’s happening around you, and the sensations you feel within the world. The wind on your face, the smile of a stranger, the intricacies of the leaves on the trees.
In this way, mindfulness and meditation are connected as they are interrelated and often practiced together. When we practice mindfulness meditation, all we are essentially doing is taking the time to tune into the present moment and notice everything that comes with it — the feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations.
The purpose of mindfulness meditation isn’t to stop thinking or to “clear your mind” (what does that even mean?!) but just to pay attention to one’s own mind and body.
On the physical level, meditation has many benefits. For example, when we breathe slowly and deeply, we engage our parasympathetic nervous system (the ‘rescue response’), which notifies our lizard brain that we are safe, that everything is ok.
When our parasympathetic nervous system is engaged, physical symptoms improve. Blood pressure lowers, stress is released, you feel a sense of increased calm and ease when going about your daily life.
Over time, engaging your parasympathetic nervous system helps combat the negative effects of stress switched on by the sympathetic (‘fight or flight’) nervous system response that occurs when we are under constant stress and pressure.
Our bodies need to engage in this parasympathetic response in order to switch on their own healing mechanisms. In addition to the physical benefits, people who practice meditation also incur many mental and emotional benefits.
This mind-body connection is why meditation has been associated with many positive mental and emotional health outcomes, such as increased focus and concentration, empathy, and emotional wellbeing. All attributes that help you perform better at work and more generally, in life.
Going even deeper, when we sit in stillness and can start to pay attention to our inner selves without judgement, we begin to notice things and perhaps even begin to question our own habits:
Why am I doing this?
Is it because I want to, or is it out of habit?
Why do I feel this way?
Can I make different choices that will lead me to not feel this way?
These are all lines of self-inquiry that can arise from a simple, daily meditation practice.
Nothing about this is complicated. Everything about it is exceptional.
Are you ready to change your life in just 5-10 minutes a day? Start with your breath.
For more information on how you can start your own daily meditation practice, or work in small groups or one-on-one through a guided meditation programme, feel free to visit my website: www.makespacewithsasha.com