There’s no point even pretending you’re not stressed at the moment. Whether it’s the immediate circumstances, bees disappearing, bananas dying out or AI replacing us all and then deciding we’re surplus to requirements, everyone’s got something to worry about.
The trouble is, the solutions most experts present can often feel like part of the problem: another thing to stress about cramming into your schedule rather than a blissful retreat into perfect relaxation.
Suddenly, it’s not enough to disengage your brain at the end of the day. You have to start filling in a gratitude journal, doing deep breathing or swapping warm baths for frosty showers. Are you really going to do all that? No, neither are we.
But that's okay because you can start feeling the benefits of mindfulness with just a few simple techniques.
Why bother with mindfulness?
‘Most people won’t be aware that long term mindful practice, according to MRI scans, appears to decrease the size of your amygdala, the region of your brain associated with fear and stress,’ says mindfulness expert Lee Chambers. ‘The functional connectivity between the amygdala and the brain also decreases, leading to increased resistance to stress, less overall anxiety and even the ability to sleep better in the evenings.’
There’s a flipside, too: connectivity between areas associated with concentration, attention and high-order decision may actually get stronger, making you less stressed and more able to make good, thoughtful decisions.
How do I start practicing mindfulness?
Assuming you don’t have a Zen rock garden to retreat to, where do you start being more mindful in the confines of your flat? The kitchen.
‘My suggestion of a simple way to start is to link mindfulness to eating,’ says Chambers. ‘There are several good reasons for this: it gives us a good number of set points during a day to practice when we’re reminded of our plan by the shift in gears from working to preparing or eating food. By changing your focus, you get all the benefits of appreciating the full sensory experience of eating, but you’ll also benefit from chewing food well, making digestion easier and helping you to notice when you’re full.’
It’s also an easy way to start because there’s a clear place to direct your attention. Start by eating free of distractions such as TV or work, then notice how each bite feels in your mouth, taking breaks to breathe and appreciate the textures and flavours of your food.
Advanced-level mindfulness means noticing without judgement – so if your cereal is on the soggy side or your toast is a tad burnt, try to accept it. Practicing acceptance like this helps to build the skill of being less easily impacted by things beyond your control. Start with one meal a day, then switch to two or three.
After eating’s under control, move mindfulness to other areas: doing it during a daily walk or commute can be a helpful way to practice, allowing you to notice new things or sensations every time you leave the house.
It’ll take practice, but trying to ‘notice’ your feelings with no judgement, whether you’re angry, bored or frustrated by work, play or side-projects will allow you to better control them - stopping yourself from being instantly overtaken by out-of-control emotion.
How do I develop my mindfulness practices?
Once you’ve got the basics down, you can use mindfulness during almost anything. ‘Mindfulness has many applications across life, and for many of us, simply building it into a number of our daily processes would be of massive benefit,’ says Chambers.
‘I often encourage people to be mindful while driving, as this is generally seen as challenging. But it’s also important to do when switching between tasks, as it allows you to fully disconnect before connecting to the new task.
‘An advanced way to think of it is not as being mindful for yourself, but being mindful for the benefit of others – it’ll make you more calm and able to react to changing circumstances without excess emotion, making good decisions and acting in a helpful way.’
Will mindfulness make me happier?
All sounding a bit happy-clappy? Au contraire: mindfulness isn’t a cure-all, and expecting to be blissfully happy all the time is actually counter-productive.
‘In my experience, most people’s biggest misconception about mindfulness is expecting that it’ll always be peaceful and joyous,' says Chambers. ‘But the present moment is not always happy, quiet or enjoyed in solitude. And being present with how things are, in a non-judgemental way, even when it’s not good, or how you want it, is a key part of being mindful.’
In other words, grasshopper, when you can examine your reaction to a clumsy tackle or a terrible tee off without letting the emotion overtake you, you’re on the road to mindful mastery.