Observe & Be Mindful
One of the core values of The Museum of Happiness is mindfulness. It’s not surprising - co-founder Shamash Alidina is an amazing mindfulness meditation teacher and trainer, and the author of books like Mindfulness for Dummies and The Mindful Way Through Stress!
Being mindful and observing our thoughts, feelings and sensations in the moment means we can more easily notice when we’re caught up in them. With awareness comes the power of choice - the choice to become less attached to them, to experience something different, or to truly savour them.
And by realising that we are NOT our thoughts, feelings, sensations or emotions, we can rest more easily in our deeper nature of love, peace and innate mental health.
What does observing and being mindful mean?
I always remember attending a funny and enlightening talk by Brené Brown when she came to London a few years ago. After mentioning her work with the military and their use of “box breathing”, she revealed that she’d always struggled with meditation.
Right up until she heard it described in two simple words: pay attention.
Observing and being mindful means paying warm attention and being fully present to our breath, our thoughts, what’s “going on inside us” or to what we’re doing.
It’s the practice of focusing your attention on the present moment and accepting whatever you discover without judgment. The ‘without judgement’ bit is very important, and perhaps the hardest for some of us to grasp!
I always picture it as warm sunshine, the kind which feels good on my skin. I can direct the warm sunshine of my attention onto whatever I’m experiencing in the moment.
In doing so I can recognise that the light is me. The thoughts and sensations it falls on are separate from me. This is particularly important when it comes to my thoughts, which are so easy for me to identify with.
“Just because you have a thought in your head doesn't mean it's your thought.
It doesn't mean it's true, it doesn't mean it actually IS what you think.
It just means there's a thought in your head.”
When we’re mindful of our thoughts and can observe them passing through our mind with warmth and compassion, we can see that we’re not actually our thoughts. We’re really just the space where they happen, and we can allow them to leave as quickly as they arise.
How can you do it?
There are many ways for you to observe and be more mindful. Experiment and find out which one works for you!
For most people, though, the word “mindful” is linked to meditation. And no wonder! It can feel like our distractions are increasing, and our attention spans are becoming shorter.
One way to respond to this observation is to treat our ability to pay attention like a muscle. If you go to a gym to work out, why not go to a meditation class to build up your attention? Whether you’re a beginner in need of skilful guidance, or a regular meditator, there’s something special about meditating with others.
Another route is to listen to a guided meditation. Free audios and special apps are readily available. Some of the latter offer guided meditations, where someone talks you through images or a situation, whereas others will simply mind the time for you.
Guided meditations are really helpful when you’re just starting out or when your feel tired and overwhelmed. It can feel scary to experience all the internal chatter, aches and pains you normally don’t notice when you’re going about your day. Having a warm and caring voice to guide you offers an anchor when your mind starts to drift.
And here’s a secret about being mindful and observing; your mind is going to wander! In fact, that’s the whole point - that’s just what minds do. Rather than beat yourself up for losing focus, congratulate yourself for when you DO notice you’ve gone “off track” and have brought yourself back to the present moment.
Think of it like house-training a puppy. You wouldn’t shout at a puppy for wandering off the newspaper, right? And if you did shout at it, do you think the puppy would be happy and confident or would it learn to be afraid?
It’s the same with us. We respond so much better when we treat ourselves with kindness and care, and gently return our attention to the present moment with the same love we’d use to return an adorable puppy back to its newspaper.
How does observing and being mindful help our well-being?
There’s a reason why mindfulness and meditation are becoming more popular and widespread over the past few decades; research shows that it’s beneficial to our physical, emotional and mental well-being in lots of ways.
For over thirty years Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder and former director of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, has helped to bring the practice of mindfulness meditation into mainstream medicine.
His research demonstrates that practicing mindfulness can bring about positive change in the following ways;
Mindfulness improves our well-being. Being mindful makes it easier to savour the pleasures in life as they’re occurring, as you’re more present when they’re actually happening. This helps you to be more fully engaged in your activities.
Being present to what we’re going through at the time we’re experiencing it also creates a greater capacity to deal with adverse events, as we’re not suppressing or getting hooked by our reactions.
By focusing on the here and now, many people who practice mindfulness find that they’re less likely to get caught up in worries about the future or regrets over the past. This in turn reduces the emotional barriers to forming deep connections with others.
Mindfulness improves our physical health. Scientists have discovered that being mindful can help to improve our physical health in a number of ways, too.
Many of us want to distance ourselves from unpleasant experiences. But being present to what we’re going through can help to relieve stress, reduce chronic pain, improve sleep, alleviate gastrointestinal difficulties and much more. All of these positive outcomes have a profound and positive impact on our wellbeing.
Mindfulness improves our mental health. It’s good for everyone’s mental health to have windows of quiet reflection and connection to ourselves as a part of our day.
But more and more therapists are directing their clients to mindfulness meditation as part of their treatment. Whether you’re experiencing depression, anxiety, substance abuse or any number of mental health challenges, there’s a chance that becoming more mindful and observing your thoughts or cravings with warm detachment can help you to find more peace of mind.
Action for August; Be more mindful!
Creating space to observe and be more mindful is easy with just a few tweaks to your existing routine. Here are a couple of ideas, and remember; it’s easier to keep habits if they’re obvious, attractive, easy and satisfying.
How can you make observing and being mindful really obvious to you? Can you change your phone wallpaper to an inspiring reminder or image? Can you stick a note next to your bed, or on your bathroom mirror for when you brush your teeth in the morning? Can you download a meditation app and keep a shortcut on your phone?
How can you make this habit attractive? Can you create a beautiful corner of a room for you to sit when you meditate? Can you find a friend to attend a meditation class with, or to listen to a guided meditation with?
How can you make it easy? If you travel by public transport, can you listen to a relaxing meditation on the way to work? Can you pin a note above your kettle, as a reminder to really savour your morning cup of tea or coffee in the morning? Is there a time in your schedule, or an existing task or habit, that you can use to trigger a few moments of mindful breathing or to simply notice what’s going on inside you?
How can you make it satisfying? What difference would greater presence and clarity of mind bring to your life? How would being in the moment affect your relationships, your challenges at work, how you show up in the world?
There are lots of resources available to help you be more mindful. If one thing doesn’t work for you, that’s okay - try something else! Some of us respond well to silence and sitting, whereas others need movement or walking, and many more need someone to guide us - especially when our heads are noisy.
The most important thing is to be kind to yourself, and remember; each new moment is another opportunity to connect with it and your experience.