A couple of years ago, I really desperately needed a block of chocolate while my family was out and about, running errands in the car. I demanded that we stop when I saw the beautiful, beckoning lights of the supermarket. I then proceeded to jump out of the car, super-woman my way through the aisles, spotted my chocolate of choice (cue epic hallelujah music playing), and then I super-womaned my way back to the family car.
I belted myself back in, put my precious chocolate down, and then I looked up from my superhero mission and looked around. At a car of… total. strangers.
The strangers looked at me. I stared in open-mouthed horror back at them. They started laughing, and then I cleared my throat awkwardly, said “er, sorry”, grabbed my loot and hightailed it over to my family’s *actual* car, which was full of my *actual* family, who were all laughing hysterically.
I suspect that it’s incidents like that have earned me the title of the family space cadet. I spend a lot of my time daydreaming and hopping around in my head from one idea to the other, without much awareness of my surroundings. While this means that I can be excellent for team brainstorms (much as I hate them), it also means that I’m easily distracted, and I sometimes have trouble coming down to Planet Earth. This is where mindfulness meditation comes in.
I stumbled across mindfulness when I’d pretty much exhausted every other option for getting myself out of a particularly shizen depressive stint. I was suspicious at first, as the “meditation” part sounded New Agey to my Southern mind. But the “meditation” title is a bit of a misnomer; it’s really just about teaching your brain to come back to Planet Earth and to focus on the task at hand, instead of thinking about what you had for breakfast that morning, or all the things you need to do when you get home.
Mindfulness meditation helps you to take more notice of your surroundings—like your breath, or how it feels to be walking, or what the sunlight looks like as you’re wandering along. When you notice that your brain has gone walkies (which happens like a bajillion times per minute, if you’re anything like me), you just note that you’ve gone to outer space, and bring yourself gently back down to Earth. You’re not supposed to critique yourself (that means no berating yourself about spending your time on Pluto), you just gently bring your space ship back into port, again and again.
At first, observing your thoughts and bringing your attention back to Earth will feel a lot like herding a bunch of cats who are all slinking off in different directions, getting them all in one place, and then having the little rat-bastards slink off again straight away. But as you do it more, you start to train your brain to stay on the task at hand. Eventually, you might not find yourself whiling away hours on internet binges, and then coming to and thinking “er, what was I meant to do be doing?”
There’s shitloads of evidence that mindfulness meditation is a really good thing for crays and non-crays; it makes people more focussed at work, it makes crays like me way less likely to get depressed again, and it helps to stem the tide of anxiety.
On the days when I manage to clamber out from under my precious desk and hang out with (gasp!) people, often I find that coming back to focus on my breath going in and out can help me to stop my “ohmygodohmygoddidyoujustsaythat” radio station. One of my favourite studies is a brain-scan study that found that mindfulness actually shifts how your brain is wired so that that your baseline mood is more positive than negative. That’s like a face-lift for your BRAIN! So cool.
If it sounds a bit simple and, ‘well duh’ to you—that’s probably because it is that simple. That said, learning how to stop and take a moment to come back down to Earth is something that I suspect we’re all slowly starting to lose sight of in today’s crazy-horse world. Between the fun and games of all my marvellous gadgets, there can be a whole days when I barely look up from massive internet binges, when I feel like I’ve been automatically going from one thing to the other without really thinking about whether or not that’s what I want to be doing.
Here are my top tips for being more mindful:
Notice the little things—no equipment needed!
Like when you’re eating your lunch, look at your sandwich. Notice the texture of it. what the crust looks like, the fillings. Then pick it up and see how it feels. Take a slow bite and feel your teeth sink in. Notice what it tastes like on different parts of your tongue. Notice what it’s feels like when you swallow. When you find your brain flying off into the cosmos, bring it back, and just focus on the sensations.
Then rinse and repeat—you get the drill! It makes food way taste more delicious (and it also has the glorious side-effect of helping you to notice when you’re full—mindfulness training is often used in weight loss studies these days).
Download these amaaaaazing free guided meditations: http://www.freemindfulness.org/download
They range from three minutes (less than your average song) to 20 minutes, and you can pop them on your phone and listen to them anywhere. They’re the gold-standard for guided meditations , and they’re fabulously free! The UCLA ones in particular are super good.
If you have the cash moneys, I highly recommend the guided meditation audio CD from Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness for Depression. It is uh-maze-ing.
If you’re super keen, get your Google on and do an actual course.
I did an eight-week course through my uni and I came out a changed (wo)man. I was happier, I was way more productive at work, and much less prone to coming home an anxious wreck.
I also managed to talk my marvellous card-carrying atheist Manfriend into coming along to a mindfulness course at our local Buddhist centre. Most centres run meditation courses these days (and usually at a fraction of the cost of ones run by psychologists).
Don’t worry too much about coming out at the end with no hair and wearing a monk’s habit—my experience is that the people who run the courses are very respectful and understand that most people just want some help getting their brain to stop flying into outer space.
If the world’s biggest atheist can get on board, then you can too!
Just do it
Meditation is a skill, and like any skill, it takes a bit of practice. I keep a weekly record on the whiteboard in our living room of how much I meditate—not because I think I’m some kind of science experiment, but as a way of keeping myself accountable for doing it.
And this is why: on the days that I meditate in the mornings, I feel calm, and able to cope with things as they arise. On the days I don’t, I feel stressed and stuck in my head and I freak out over every little thing. I convince myself I couldn’t possibly spare three minutes to get myself calm, and I carry on fretting and not getting much done. Meditation doesn’t necessarily mean carving out an hour each morning to sit quietly (though that can be lovely when you have the time), but we can all spare one measly minute, right?
So I’m throwing down the gauntlet. Try it out, and let us know at @litdarling how you go!