By Emily Smith
Mindfulness, in juxtaposition to its popular perception, does not have the divisive qualities of marmite. Nor is it attainable only by the elite dedicated few. You are not required to take up yoga, chant on the top of mountains, nor have sought your true self in a faraway land.
Though there are people who find benefit from these (and more power to them), mindfulness is not merely a construction of a superior image on Instagram. The commercialisation of lifestyle choices has largely dominated the popular view of mindfulness, scaring off many a newcomer. In my experience, the result of these misconceptions are nothing short of tragic.
The glamour of Instagram is quite another world from my idea of mindfulness. I received my first (rather rude) introduction to the practise whilst in hospital. Mentally unstable (to say the least), insecure in my own self and mind, and surrounded by others feeling much the same… unsurprisingly, it was not here in which I could embrace the practice. It felt alien, false, and even patronising. What I did not know then is that one of the key elements of mindfulness is intention. It is something which cannot be forced upon you: if it is, you will, without a doubt, resent it. Equally, you cannot force mindfulness upon yourself. If you do not enjoy what you do, it’s incredibly unlikely that you will benefit, nor will you practice regularly. Luckily, there is a multiplicity of approaches to mindfulness – many of which do not involve even closing your eyes, let alone balancing on one leg.
Mindfulness, to me, is nothing more than conscious awareness. This sounds simple enough. In fact, one would hope that everyone had conscious awareness at least sometimes (though Monday mornings can be forgiven). Yet, until you attempt to engage with life on this level, you do not realise how much of life we spend on autopilot. It’s quite possible to stumble through a day without truly realising where we have been, and what we are doing. This may make life easy, but does it truly make it enjoyable?
Our mental well-being can be sensitive at the best of times. Especially in times of high stress, it seems desirable to ‘switch off’ – we may subconsciously elect, therefore, simply not to think. Unfortunately, this runs the heavy risk of making us feel out of control; it can feel as if we cannot keep pace with our surroundings. In this case, taking time out for mindfulness may seem counterintuitive.
In fact, taking this time out may allow us to catch back up with reality. By reconnecting with experiences and surroundings, our awareness returns – and with it, a surprisingly empowering sense of control.
So, how is this reconnection possible? Though the ‘Instagram image’ of meditation and mindfulness may suggest that a retreat from life is essential (through yoga, for example), I find that it is most helpful to integrate such activities into habits which I already have. The benefits of this are twofold: it grants a positive association to an everyday activity, and you don’t have to adjust your lifestyle (taking up a new habit, unsurprisingly, is more difficult than adapting an old one). The habit I chose to use for mindfulness was making coffee, for example. It is easy to do such a mundane task on autopilot; it is far harder to focus upon every element of the process. Yet it is worth the effort, because this focus has an incredible grounding power. It is much harder to feel lost when acutely aware of your surroundings.
The beauty of mindfulness is that – as it is only conscious awareness – the only thing needed to achieve it is to make a choice to embrace our own awareness. Momentarily, disregard everything else: focus upon one task, one action, one movement. It need not be complex, or exotic (in fact, it’s probably best if it is not). All it must be is consciously chosen. This is not even a new skill to any of us – as university students, we are more than accustomed to focusing.
It will not give you superpowers, nor may it be ‘the answer’ to every problem. But by claiming conscious awareness of one moment, it becomes far easier to feel that you have the power to be in control. This power, though gained in these isolated moments, is by no means restricted to them. Therein lies the benefit of mindfulness – the knowledge of your own awareness which remains. In a world which is fast-paced and ever changing, it is far too easy to feel lost amongst the chaos. Mindfulness teaches you how, extending from the simplest tasks, you can claim control of your consciousness.
It may not be a superpower, but it’s certainly a comfort.
Illustration: Sapphire Demirsoz