Making mindfulness easy for busy people
Making mindfulness easy for busy people
‘Mindfulness is a really simple thing,’ Padraig O’Morain told me.
He’s been practising mindfulness for over 25 years, teaching it for more than 10, and has written a number of books about it - including; ‘Mindfulness on the Go,’ ‘Mindfulness for Worriers,’ and ‘Kindfulness.’
Padraig doesn’t want you to sit on the top of a picturesque mountain in the lotus position trying to focus on your breathing for the duration of a very lengthy meditation session (unless you really want to).
On the contrary, Padraig’s ‘thing’ is making mindfulness uncomplicated and easy to fit in to even the busiest of schedules.
“[The] great thing about mindfulness is nobody knows you’re doing it,” he told me in healthHackers® episode 32.
“You can use short and simple, short and sweet methods… of training yourself to come into the present moment more often in the course of your day.”
What is mindfulness?
The simplest explanation of mindfulness is “knowing what you’re doing while you’re doing it,” Padraig told me.
“Fifty percent of mindfulness is moving your attention again and again from what’s going on inside your head to what’s going on in the world outside your head.
“The other fifty per cent is … cultivating an attitude of acceptance of things that we would ordinarily maybe struggle against.”
That means moving away from the worries, fears and resentments that whir around in our heads throughout the day - the kind of rumination that’s associated with depression and excessive fear, he explained.
But that doesn’t mean we have to suppress or let go of a feeling that’s bothering us - instead, we should just accept it and let it be.
Why try mindfulness?
Padraig told me how our emotional system is always looking out for threats.
They can be physical threats or social ones, like an upcoming interview or a difficult meeting with your boss. Whatever the trigger, your emotional system starts getting you ready for fight or flight which makes you feel stressed and anxious.
“When you practise mindfulness, the part of the brain you use to do that - the prefrontal cortex - is able to calm down the system. And when you practise mindfulness it gets better at calming down the system.”
In effect, you are re-wiring your brain to handle stress and emotions better.
“…when something comes along that is stressful you’re able to not go into all this ‘oh my god’ and ‘this is catastrophic and terrible’, you’re able to be more calm in the moment because you’ve been practising it when you didn’t need it, you’re now better able to do it when you do need it.”
How to be mindful
During the recording of healthHackers® episode 32, I asked Padraig to talk me through a quick and easy mindfulness exercise.
Below is a summary of what Padraig called “an exercise in noticing things” that can be used for a little as a few seconds or as many minutes as you want.
You can keep your eyes open or close them - whichever you prefer.
Start by noticing your breathing - notice what it feels like and keep your attention on it for a few moments.
Move your focus to your posture - the way you are sitting or standing.
Next, feel the sensations in the soles of your feet, noticing the feeling against your shoes or on the ground.
Now pay attention to the sounds inside the room of space you’re in.
Apply the same attention to the sounds coming from outside.
Bring the focus back to your breathing again. Whenever your mind drifts, keep coming back to the sensation of breathing.
It doesn’t matter if you get the sequence wrong, Padraig said you could even just try one of those steps rather than all of them and keep bringing your focus back to it every time your mind drifts.
‘Mindfulness is not always comfortable’
I told Padraig I’d tried doing mindfulness in the past but couldn’t lose the butterflies in my tummy that were reminding me I had things to worry about.
His advice: “You allow that feeling and you accept it as a physical feeling.
“Physical sensations fade in time, it’s only the way that you’re thinking about it that’s keeping it going.”
So it seems that having physical symptoms of nervousness are preferential to the repetitive thoughts.
“Anxiety can actually feel painful but it’s still better than ramping it up in your head,” he told me.
And this applies to emotions like anger and sadness too. According to Padraig, it’s better to feel the physical sensation and wait for it to gradually reduce rather than to keep on re-living it in your head.
“It’s the story in your head that does the harm.”
What if I feel like I’m doing it wrong?
If you start to get frustrated with yourself and think you’re going wrong, Padraig said this:
“Your feeling that you’re not doing it right... that might be a feeling that you are used to having when doing new things. It may not really be connected with the mindfulness at all.
“Accept the feeling and let it be… You don’t let it go because letting feelings go is a very difficult thing to do. You just let it be and you get on with what you are doing” - which could be refocusing on the sensations listed in the exercise above.
And please don’t think you need an idyllic setting for mindfulness to work.
“There’s only so much room on those mountains,” he told me.
“Most people are doing their mindfulness when they’re walking, driving, sitting down, cooking, eating - that’s how they’re doing it.”