A while ago, I posted a brief suggestion on how to be happier. Although I haven’t stuck religiously to my own advice (of finding some positives in each day), and there have been one or two times when my mood has dipped, life on the whole continues on an upwards trajectory. Particularly since Christmas I’ve felt fitter, healthier, happier and more productive. In the interests of sharing (and at the risk of painting myself as some sort of a self-help guru) I thought I’d list some techniques that I’ve been trying, and that are working for me. I will write separate posts on willpower and diet/exercise, but for now I will focus on the practice which I have found most useful: mindfulness.
What is mindfulness? Well, I guess you could just call it noticing things. Initially, noticing things about yourself – your breathing, body, mind and feelings – but ultimately mindfulness can be trained and expanded to help you be more aware of everything going on in the world and the people around you. I won’t go into a detailed explanation here of how to practice mindfulness (other than to say that the starting point involves meditation), because there are other resources listed below which do it far better than I could.
I first came into contact with mindfulness way back in 1989, when I was studying Psychology at university. Some of my fellow students got incredibly nervous about the coming exams, and as a result, one of the lecturers organised regular lunch-time workshops on relaxation and other coping techniques. I learned here that breathing deeply doesn’t mean breathing sharply, it means drawing the air all the way into your body; I learned how focusing on the breathing, and reciting simple mantras, can bring one’s mind back to rest from the hubbub of the everyday; and I learned that my own brain has the power to alter the temperature shown on a thermometer held in my fingers. Over the years I’ve drawn on these techniques to try and calm myself in times of stress, and to put the world in better perspective. More recently, the Sheffield Buddhist Centre (disclaimer: I am not a Buddhist) introduced me to the “mindfulness of breathing” meditation (and also the excellent “cultivation of loving kindness” meditation), and I realised that this practice was connected to the deep breathing I had learned years before in Bristol.
Since then, I have tried to find some time in my daily life for meditation; almost invariably I’ve failed. More recently still, Amazon sent me a book to review: The Mindful Manifesto, and it convinced me that, even if mindfulness is not the answer to every problem in the world, it’s a damn good alleviator of almost all of those problems (and, yes, there is scientific evidence backing this claim up in many fields – for example in one study, when people who had suffered three or more previous episodes of depression were given regular mindfulness exercises to carry out, their relapse rate was slashed from 66% to 37%).
But, finding a spare 20 minutes (which usually seems to be about the recommended length for a meditation) in my daily routine has proved impossible. 20 minutes doesn’t sound like much, but mornings are usually a more-or-less frantic dash to get to work in good time, lunch times are unpredictable, often brief (and anyway there is no suitable space at my work where I’d feel comfortable meditating). And evenings are already far too brief to fit in the bits of personal admin, book reading and socialising that I aim to do. So for months I was left high and dry with no meditatory outlets.
…until I decided to ignore the 20 minutes rule (which was never really a rule in the first place). At some point, I decided to give myself a goal of noticing my breathing at least once per day. Oh, and also of smiling and meaning it once per day. It seems like such a nothing of a goal that it oughtn’t to have any effect on life, but like the water dripping that eventually hollows out a cave or builds up a stalagmite, it has. I started by just pausing for a couple of slow, deep breaths while I was in bed in the morning. Then I started slotting additional breaths and smiles into the minute moments of downtime throughout my day: when stuck at traffic lights, waiting for a bus, or just standing for a moment to admire the scenery. And after just a few weeks, I can feel them solidifying into habits. In the meantime, I have also discovered the excellent Headspace website, which offers free 10 minute introductory guided meditations which you can listen to through your computer or phone, at your desk or on a bus. These have built powerfully on my little habit, and turned it into something which occasionally even makes me feel ecstatic, marvellously unburdened.
It’s still early days, but my meditation habit is growing step by tiny step, and daily I feel that my mood and my outlook on the world gets brighter and brighter. Meanwhile, I am working mindfulness into more and more areas of life – using it to keep me focused on my work, to prevent over-eating and drinking, and to be more present and empathic in my relationships with family and friends. I hope that you can find a spare two breaths in your every day to join me and be happy.