Mindfulness meditation was a mystery to me for many years. How could I possibly sit still and do nothing for 30 minutes? That was until the day I went to a short course run by Mindfulness Works and that got me started.
For the first year the effort required to stop whatever I was doing, sit down and tune into a guided meditation was demanding and difficult.
I would choose the shortest podcast I could find – often not more than 7 minutes. Doing this meant that once I was hooked up on my headphones, I was pretty much okay to stay with it until the session ended.
In those early days I practiced simply on the trust that it was good for me.
My Meditation Practice Today
Now I set my timer for 29 minutes, another trick to fool myself into doing it. I sit, close my eyes and try to remember to open my heart while I focus on my breathe. It’s this simple, but not always easy.
My mind can go wild. Some days it just won’t rest: revisiting conversations, worrying about the future or drifting into day-dreams.
Sometimes, without warning, suppressed emotions of grief or sadness arise. I have learned not to resist these but to let them pass, which they do quite quickly if let alone. (More about this in My Mind is a Junk Shop.)
Whatever happens during meditation is okay! Emotions and thoughts will come and go – mindfulness is about being the observer of whatever happens.
Using Mindfulness to Grow Self Awareness
I used to believe that by thinking my way through problems I would become a better person. I was so wrong.
Over-thinking only creates more worry and insecurity. It wastes precious energy and as I’m getting older, I need all the energy I can get.
Mindful meditation, on the other hand, creates space for self-discovery.
So Why Do It?
When I began with meditation several years ago, it was the temporary relief from depression and anxiety that kept me practicing. Today, it is the discovery of alternative ways to look at the world that keeps me doing it
Does Mindfulness Make Everything okay?
Hell no! The doubts, worries or anxiety symptoms don’t disappear and as you may already know, growing self-awareness can be challenging. But the results are all worthwhile.
Mindfulness is on an upward curve and there are many good reasons why it’s happening. Just remember you don’t need to know the science, or follow a particular philosophy, before you can trust that it will work for you.
Like exercise – Just Do It! You have nothing to lose.
We all want to be happy!
But what’s the secret to achieving happiness even when experiencing depression or anxiety? Seeing the film ‘Happy‘ has given me some new ideas on how to help myself and that is what I’d like to share.
Filmmaker, Roko Belic, travelled to more than a dozen countries (over 6 years) searching for the meaning of happiness. This delightful movie,which brings together empirical research and personal interviews, offers a superb insight into what makes people happy – no matter where they live or their life circumstances.
The movie concludes that seven things contribute to human happiness; practicing happiness, keeping moving, investing in our community, rethinking success, helping others, expressing gratitude and deepening our self-awareness.
Today, I am interested in how we can practice happiness as a way of improving mental well-being.
It is well documented that too much stress is bad for us and a contributing factor towards reduced mental well-being, depression and anxiety.
If happiness is an antidote to stress, then it follows that practicing happiness will improve mental health.
According to this film, 50% of our personal happiness effect is controlled by the genes we receive from our parents. Then, surprisingly only anther 10% of our happiness is due to the circumstances of our lives: status, money, career and the things we have. That means we can do something about the remaining 40%. Wow, that surprised me.
Coming across this information has given me an increasing confidence that I have control over my happiness effect. And if I am lucky enough to be born with optimistic genes then my chances for happiness are even higher.
It might seem obvious that when we alter our thinking, we will be happier. But I don’t believe that we truly appreciate this fact when we are head down, getting on with life. I know how quickly I can forget how to practice happiness, when under stress or over-striving.
Secondly, if I intrinsically understand that I can be happy by just practicing it, then why do I spend so much time: worrying about what people think of me, buying things I don’t need or criticising others in the belief that I will be happier.
At times it can feel difficult to change the circumstances that we find ourselves in. For me, when my mood is low everything gets harder to manage. This includes getting up, doing exercise and making friends. I also get very stuck in my thinking.
So from now on, I need to keep reminding myself that 40% of my happiness effect is within my control.
We can all think of examples of people who have succeeded well above the circumstances of their lives. At the same time we know many others trapped in life situations apparently beyond their control. But how would their situation improve if they recognised and truly understood that practicing happiness is life changing?
One thing we must do before we can practice happiness is to be kinder to ourselves and do the things that truly make us happy. Then we need to stop feeling guilty about taking care of ourselves! If we fail to look after our own happiness first, then we are unlikely to be able to help others.
I know that when I am experiencing depression or high anxiety levels, my brain doesn’t work well, my memory is patchy and my ability to focus declines. During these times, it can be difficult figuring out what I should do to feel happier. It’s at these times I am lucky that I have friends and family to help me through. They do this with their wisdom, good spirits and empathy.
Fortunately, it’s not always this way and these days I like to spend my time thinking about how I can help others improve their happiness effect.
What about you? Please think what you can do to support the people you know with mental health issues to live happier lives.
In the best of times, and in the worst of times, there are things that make a difference to how I feel about my life – regardless of how my mental health is tracking. Here are three top tips for moving forward.
It has been proven that exercise supports health and well-being. I’m not talking about hard-out cross-fit training sessions. Rather I prefer light exercise. I find that even a 20 minute walk can change my state and being near water or in nature usually produces the best results.
Apart from long walks in the outdoors, my other favourite activity is Pilates. I have done a gentle version for ten years now and while it is quite low impact I have developed very good strength and flexibility.
Any exercise that requires the brain to tune into the body is great therapy, for the both the mind and the body. The awareness developed has helped me understand and avoid stress responses as they arise. Knowing how to read the signals of distress and having the physical awareness to deal with them, provides reassurance when things are falling apart.
Mindfulness is a great way to keep learning about ourselves and the world. It expands knowledge and creates new ways of thinking. Often we get stuck in recycled thought patterns – without even knowing that is what we’re doing. Any old habit is hard to break and if we are not aware of thought patterns, they are impossible to change.
The practice of mindfulness meditation allows me to pause and observe what is actually going on inside my mind. I am surprised at the huge amount thoughts bouncing around – but not taking me anywhere. Such a waste of energy!
Just the simple act of being able to see my thoughts has changed the way I respond to stress and make decisions. It has also brought insights that would not have arisen without my daily meditation practice.
Also my view the world has changed in recent years. I can accredit this to meditation along with the lessons learned from my experiences with depression and anxiety. I find it exciting to be evolving like this.
If you haven’t tried meditating then guided meditations are a good place to start. 12 minutes listening to a pleasant voice helping me relax both physically and mentally is very therapeutic, while not taking a big chunk out of my day. If you are like me, being alone with nothing to occupy your mind is not always comfortable. That’s why guided meditation is great. It gives you sometime to do – while you’re not doing anything.
My favourite guided meditation pod casts are found at Meditation Oasis available on most pod cast apps and here. They offer a guided meditation for every occasion, varying in length and intensity, so you can pick one to suit your needs.
Here in New Zealand, Mindfulness Works run courses in many centres around the country. I can highly recommend these programmes.
When dealing with mental health issues the thought of trying something new might be impossible and if it is possible, it still takes an enormous effort. Some days I have had to force myself to do the more routine tasks, never mind attempting something I haven’t done before.
Fortunately, due to technology, we no longer have to leave the house to have new experiences. Connecting on-line enables us to; learn from others, share experiences or simply watch the world through whatever lens we choose to apply.
Alternatively there’s the option to take up a new hobby. YouTube is the biggest classroom ever! You can learn anything including; cooking, knitting, decluttering your home (some people call that a hobby), applying make up and rewiring a lamp (which I did recently).
Then there are the specialist websites offering information in a whole range of areas. One of my favourites is Life Edited (www.lifeedited.com) which sends me a regular newsletter on “Designing your life to include more money, health and happiness with less stuff, space and energy”. (Oh, I wish!) To be serious, what appeals to me is the focus on simple living in low impact, efficient dwellings. Check it out.
These are three things that I have found help move me forward each day – despite the ups, downs and restrictions created by the state of my mental health. Above all, they all support my desire for life-long learning.