a guide to redefining what it means to live
What is mindfulness? You’ve probably seen that word mentioned casually in various articles, self-help books, or passing conversations. If you haven’t, that’s all right too. There’s never a right or wrong time for mindfulness; it’s an ongoing lifestyle choice that you can adopt whenever you feel is right.
Back to that first question. Mindfulness. What is it, exactly? My friend gave me “The Little Book of Mindfulness,” by Dr. Patrizia Collard, as a Christmas gift. This petite book introduces the concept of living mindfully in a beautifully simple, relatable way. Collard gives readers various mental and physical exercises that only take about five or ten minutes to do, accompanied by the soothing artistic illustrations of Abi Read.
It can be difficult to find time for yourself in the midst of midterm season. In the rare instances that I have a break, the first things I usually turn to are my phone and my computer. Idleness can be daunting, and I’m so used to maximizing every minute of the day that I feel obligated to spend my free time productively too. I mention productivity in the context of occupying my mind or my hands, like when I go on my phone and scroll through Facebook or feed my virtual cats on Neko Atsume. This need for busyness is a symptom of living in a quick-paced society that values industriousness over anything else.
Of course, the concept of mindfulness is not divorced from the ability to be productive. Collard, rather, introduces us to a purposeful way of processing these everyday stressors. Mindfulness seeks out and celebrates the beauty of life, which can be difficult to discern in times of defeat.
Collard prefaces her book by defining mindfulness as “being aware of or bringing attention to this moment in time, deliberately and without judging the experience.” Mindfulness has been cited as a form of legitimate therapy, recommended by the Department of Health and the National Institute of Clinical Excellence. Mindfulness-based stress reduction can be used to treat anxiety, stress, burnout, trauma, chronic pain, some forms of cancer, psoriasis, eating disorders, addiction, and OCD. Aside from these ailments, an individual already at peace with their life can still benefit enormously from meditating and living presently.
A big part of mindfulness is slowing down, savoring and indulging in the wonders of life. This must be done without judgment. In a way, it is a return to an idyllic childhood, a place where time and guilt took less precedence in our life. For each section of the book, I’ll include a brief overview of a few exercises, along with the philosophy behind them. I greatly appreciate that Collard includes small comments that recognize that some readers cannot physically perform some of the tasks, and she offers tips and alternatives that serve to promote awareness and acknowledgement of the range of human conditions. As you read along, feel free to practice them yourself.
The first section is titled ‘Being in the Now,’ and Collard describes this as experiencing life rather than just getting through it. Below is one of the exercises in this section.
“Tune In” (5 minutes):
Sit down, close or soft-focus your eyes, and notice the sounds around you without labelling them. If your mind wanders, gently return your awareness to the simple act of listening.
Collard introduces this exercise with the goal of creating an anchor of awareness that can remind us to stay present rather than enter into a state of worrying or panic. It’s interesting that she tells readers not to label the sounds we hear, as it is so usual of us to want to identify and categorize things. By listening neutrally, we utilize our right (feeling) brain rather than our left (thinking) brain. Our stress and unhappiness often stems from over-thinking certain things in our life. Just like an overheated computer, our minds need a break, an opportunity to recharge and recalibrate.
The second section, ‘Accept and Respond,’ emphasizes the importance of engaging the mind and the body as a way of returning to a sense of equanimity. It seems easier to push our resentments deep down to a place where they are temporarily out of sight. This is like pushing a piece of wood underwater—for a while, it disappears, but eventually it has to surface again. It doesn’t fix the root of the problem. This potentially helpful visualization exercise emphasizes firstly the acceptance of a problematic emotion, such as anger, and secondly a mindful response. This methodology allows for a confrontation and conversation with your own demons in a healthy and apparent way.
“Talk to Anger and Let It Go” (10+ minutes):
Find a place of comfort and relax your facial muscles. Mentally visualize your anger, and move toward it. Speak to it and understand it by saying things like, “Let me experience you. I am an observer, and a listener. I will not react as I would have in the past.” Focus on your breathing and ‘dance’ with your anger. Observe the presence of that discomfort and recognize that it is transient. Continue, until you feel the right moment has arrived.
Mindfulness emphasizes the importance of self-awareness and acceptance of what we find out about ourselves. I love that Collard includes this exercise, because it shows that this philosophy does not provide an unrealistic or naively-optimistic outlook on life. Mindfulness guides our interpretation and response to different and often difficult experiences in a healthier way.
Section 3, ‘Making Your Mind Up,’ touches upon the topic of busyness that I mentioned earlier. Collard states, “when we procrastinate and distract ourselves with ‘busyness,’ we avoid engaging with the real thing—our lives.” Isn’t it interesting to think of life as our actual occupation, rather than all the other things we often prioritize instead? Our biggest task in life is living. So many of us have forgotten, in the mess of what we call “life,” what true living is. Unfortunately, things like school and work impinge on our luxury to truly indulge in the simple pleasure of purely existing.
Is it a revolutionary concept, to think of living as our greatest and most important imperative? Well, it shouldn’t be.
She calls this avoidance of idleness procrastination, though we traditionally associate procrastination with the putting off of important “real” work. The plight of our society is that we do indeed still need to engage with these aspects of life to maintain financial security, which thus ironically is supposed to allow the ability to relax. Mindfulness recognizes this fact, and encourages that we continue on with our responsibilities by maintaining an attitude of graciousness and deliberation for the little joys in life.
Like any job, living is not always easy. It is hard, undoubtedly, and it is unjustly hard on many. Mindfulness is not a trend that belongs exclusively to the privileged, like so many other up-and-coming lifestyle fads. Mindfulness is a universal and nondiscriminatory tool that can be applied in so many forms, because each person differs in experience and therefore differs in their definition of ‘living in the present.’
“Check Your Breathing” (5 minutes):
Breath is the energy of life. A good indication of your emotional state is the measure of your breathing. If you are stressed or agitated, you may encounter shallow or labored breathing. Explore your breathing patterns, and be mindful of the air that enters and escapes your body. Let your breath spread to every part of your body, through your fingers and toes. Then, check in with yourself again, and see if you are at a place of contentment and peace.
The other sections explore even more ways to reconnect with the true essence of existence, but these few exercises are a good way to ease into the practice of mindfulness. It is something that is personal to each individual. Once again, remember to try to be present without judgment, especially toward yourself.
Life really is a strange thing, when you think about it. Think back to your younger self, about how you saw the world with all that childish curiosity. Or, maybe you didn’t have the opportunity to have that idyllic childhood. Maybe your childhood was characterized by emotional trauma that affects you even now, and the concept of living presently is something you never had the luxury of experiencing. Those most separated from this ability to surrender to the sensations and joys of life are the ones most in need of mindfulness.
You, as you are in this very moment, have the ability to either return again to or discover for the first time the purity of those fascinations.
Five to ten minutes of your day could be all it takes to renew your outlook on life and truly live once again. Don’t forget why you are here, and what is important. It will take a while to deconstruct the aversion to idleness that so many of us have developed, but it is so valuable to be able to just exist, and to appreciate that. When you eat, do you think about what processes brought your food to your plate? Do you truly savour the textures, the smells? When you see a building, do you ever wonder about the creativity that produced it, the hard work that built it?
Life is all around us, yet it is so easy to live mindlessly rather than mindfully. “The Little Book of Mindfulness” is an effective and digestible introduction to the topic, but there is no rubric to mindfulness. It is ultimately up to you.