Like many things, mindfulness is one part science, one part art. Sure it can be scientifically measured, dissected and documented, but the art is in the practice.
In practice, for the person riddled with anxiety or searching for a good night's sleep, mindfulness is an art-form.
Understanding mindfulness means coming to understand ourselves and how busy our minds really are. We are tortured with distraction every day, filling our subconscious with nonsense. Covid-19 has even given us "doomscrolling" , a word that must surely make term of the year for 2021.
Where then does mindfulness sit in our present world? Contrary to popular opinion, it does not mean climbing a mountain to sit cross-legged and meditating over the valleys.
Mindfulness as a Tool
Mindfulness is about engaging with our present world, acknowledging our presence in it and building a muscle that allows us to stay in the moment. Not in the future or the past, but the present.
Mindfulness is neither religious nor spiritual, although both retain aspects of it. It is more like a tool. If we are mindful, we can relax the mind and absorb our environment. We can experience a degree of peacefulness and rootedness to our space.
If we are not mindful, we can lose that connection to our present moment and drift into the future or ruminate the past. Rumination is the enemy of mindfulness.
Military Uses in the Special Forces
Mindfulness is useful in every walk of life. This paper on mindful behaviours in the US Navy SEAL teams show that even in high stress environments like the special forces, mindfulness is a useful high-performance tool.
When you examine the basic training programs for military special forces, it is clear that instructors are not training the body, but filtering out the minds of soldiers that cannot control their pain, their physiological reactions to the elements and their ability to work well with others in a team environment.
Mindfulness is critical to controlling these variables in high risk situations. They can be trained for and learned, which should be of critical importance to the insomniac or anxious person.
A great example is the Irish reality show "Special Forces: Ultimate Hell Week" where civilians are treated to specific aspects of special forces training.
The candidates who cannot control their mind are weeded out over the course of the week, with the winners clearly developing a mindset that enables them to continue. Mindfulness enables the candidates to control their reaction to their environment.
One of the programs for people recovering from difficult mental health issues like depression and anxiety is a mindfulness course that encourages students to mindfully practice until it becomes second nature and interchangeable.
The power of mindfulness can be broken down into three simple concepts that are taught the world over. Observe, describe and participate.
Imagine you are cycling a bicycle. Within this one action, your mind can observe the view from the bike, describe internally what you are seeing and finally you can physically participate in the cycle, engaging with the bike, the pedals and the brakes.
On their own or combined, these three concepts make up the core pillars of mindfulness, a practice that aims to deliver the participant into the present moment.
Another example, you can listen music mindfully. Simply by observing the music, describing the music as you hear it either in writing or internally, or participating along with the music.
You can participate by tapping, humming, singing or even through dance. The purpose is to engage in the moment on the merit of what is in front of you. Observe, describe and participate without judgment.
Each pillar allows you to engage with something on neutral terms. The process is entirely non-judgemental. If you begin to judge, you can bring yourself back to centre.
Dealing with Judgment
It can be very difficult to observe without judgment. As humans we are programmed to assess our environment constantly.
Any initial attempts to observe will come up against judgment. You can just note yourself judging and stay in the moment.
For instance, imagine you are observing a painting. to be mindful, you will look at the picture and notice it. The longer you look, the more you will see. You will see things did not realise were in the picture. You might notice the paint, the broadness of strokes, it doesn't matter.
The main thing is find a place that is non-judgmental and observe, rooting you in the present.
When describing you might also come up against judgment. Again, it’s best to acknowledge it and work through the description without assigning value to the song or artwork or word.
Participate is a funny one because you might end up judging yourself for what you are doing. It could be a dance or a silly game you are playing. Notice the judgement and allow it to pass through you.
Mindfulness Colouring: A Great Starter
If you are new to mindfulness, a perfect opening practice is mindfulness colouring. All you need are a few crayons and a sheet of paper.
You can actively colour in the sheet with a pattern downloaded for free!
As you begin colouring, you can focus on one pillar of mindfulness. You can observe the colours and the pattern, watching the colours fill in the sheet and rooting you into the present. The colours are not vibrant, not dark, just colour.
When you have finished observing, you can describe the colouring, what colours are there? Are you inside the lines? What are the shapes that you are making? Again, this about being non-judgmental and staying present.
You could then cycle into participating, where you are engaging fully with the combined powered of the crayon and the sheet.
The ability to calm the judgment of the mind allows to assess situations better and react without emotion.
Making better decisions is a key aspect of improving a person's mental health but can only be done internally by the individual. In the long-run it cannot be enforced by external factors. Mindfulness can help ease anxiety by limiting the options to the mind, focusing on only one thing at one time.
Mindfulness is a powerful tool for anxiety, depression and other mental health issues because it flexes the plasticity of the brain to break up negative thought patterns and create new pathways for the brain to explore within the present moment.
With practice comes the automatic use of the three pillars, it could be on the phone, driving a car or listening to music. The opportunities to create a mindful situation in life are limitless, as are the distractions!
Like the good wolf and the bad wolf, it comes down to which beast you would rather feed. It is a conscious decision to stay in the present that can declutter the mind, make clearer decisions with greater easily and simplify life in this time of mass distraction.