Often when people at work first hear the term mindfulness, they immediately think of someone sitting at a quiet retreat and luxuriating in the peaceful surrounds of a sanctuary for hours on end. And if asked if they want to try it, they respond, “Oh I haven’t got time for that sort of navel gazing, I’m too busy”, and using 'busy' was a badge of honour.
The amazing thing about mindfulness is, it doesn’t matter where you are or what you’re doing, you can bring a mindful approach to anything. Mindfulness is much more about your ability to notice, often thoughts, sensations and emotions, and your ability to be kind to them all.
As a first timer, mediation may cause thoughts such as “my brain won’t shut up, so I can’t be mindful”, or “I feel completely restless and can’t possibly sit still for 5 minutes”. These are just thoughts and sensations and in no way an indication that someone can’t do mindfulness.
The act of mindfulness is in noticing what you are thinking and feeling, being able to say “wow, look what I am thinking how interesting”. The next and often most important step is not to judge what you are thinking or feeling as good or bad, but just acknowledge it, some say hug it and let it pass through your mind.The trick is as we resist the thoughts, sensations and emotions, they grow. As we stop resisting whatever thought, feeling or emotion arises, they more often than not disappear or dissipate. Understanding why this happens and why mindfulness is so good for us, requires an understanding of the brain.
Our brains operate quickly to process information – every second there are 20 million billion bits of information racing through our brains. Scientists have proven it takes 13 milliseconds to see an image. While speed it good, sometimes it works against us, especially when it comes to responding to others and events in our lives. Thousands of years ago the human brain was wired to fight, flight, freeze or rest. In the face of stress and danger we quickly fought, fled or froze. Thousands of years ago the threats we faced were spaced far apart so there was plenty of rest time in between one sabre- toothed tiger and the next. Today our brains are often parked in overdrive and experience a constant stream of threat, or stress, from being late to pick up the kids to making a presentation or dealing with conflict at work. While these seem insignificant in comparison to the sabre-toothed tiger, our brains process them exactly the same, by turning on our limbic system, we move into fight/flight/freeze mode and the associated physical reactions take place. Prolonged situations of stress eventually affect our immune systems and make us more prone to illness, injury and disease. This is where mindfulness steps back in.
Mindfulness helps us gain control of our thinking and emotional patterns, which in turn enable our brains to calm down and return to the resting state rather than the stress state. As mentioned earlier this can happen anywhere and anytime. The reason mindfulness programs are so useful is they help us learn to train our brain to rest, a bit like going to the gym for the brain muscles. Once you develop the mindfulness muscle, you can apply it when you’re in the slow line at the grocery store, walking to a meeting that you aren’t looking forward to, cooking dinner for hungry kids or on the yoga mat and you can’t bend as far as you’d like.
Next time a negative thought pops up, try noticing it, instead of identifying with it. Hug it and let it keep moving on. If you can do that, then you just practised mindfulness.
Katherine Winlaw is an internationally registered art psychotherapist who works with individuals and teams to promote personal and professional wellbeing and create workplaces where everyone thrives. The mindful art techniques she uses are available to anyone, and do not require artistic skill. Her most popular programs are for boosting staff wellbeing, improving communication and conflict resolution as well as life and career transitions.