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Mindfulness, self-awareness and self-care

In this article, Adjunct Prof Marcus O'Donnell discusses how mindfulness, self-awareness and self-care can help build your resilience.
SPEAKER 1: It 6:00 AM. My alarm goes off. I haven’t had enough sleep. I roll out of bed and grab my phone. I start to look at the messages, emails, Facebook, things that have come in overnight. Then I stumble into the shower. I have a kind of a dread that I’m not even really aware of. What is that? Random thoughts keep shooting around in my mind– a conversation I had last week, another one I had yesterday. What was that Netflix show I was watching?
I can’t quite remember. Then something hits me. Oh, no. It’s that big meeting today. It’s going to be messy. I start to feel really angry and agitated. I know that guy is going to be really disruptive. By the time I’m dried and dressed and making coffee to go with toast, I’m flipping through my phone again. I’m trying to distract myself. I know it’s going to be a really difficult day. I’m anxious, unsettled, even before the day has begun. Does that sound familiar? Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the original leaders of the mindfulness movement, once began a talk by asking, how many people were in the shower with you this morning? We’re all accompanied by voices in our head.
We carry around with us a cast of thousands. We anticipate how people will react. We think badly of them and of ourselves. We clutter our lives from the moment we wake up with messages, some in our head, some on our phone, others on multiple other devices. They all make demands of us. In the next few steps, we’re going to look at ways we can become more mindfully aware, how we can begin to make deliberate choices about what messages we want to entertain and when. We’re going to learn to shower with fewer people. Let’s imagine that scenario again.
The alarm rings. I turn it off. I open my eyes and stretch. Then I close them again. And I take three deep breaths.
I check in with myself and try to sense how I’m feeling.
Yes, I’m still a little bit tired. I breathe again and try to let the oxygen energise me, at least a little. Then I get up and do some simple exercises perhaps, a few minutes of stretching and then a few minutes of meditation. I become aware of my body. As I’m meditating, I feel a sense of unease. And when I stay with that feeling, when I focus on it, I remember that meeting. I let that thought pass. And I return to the breath– one, two, three, four.
Then the thought of the meeting, that difficult colleague, returns. I go back to my breath– one, two, three. Again, the meeting, again, my breath–
by the time I get in the shower, I’m a little more settled. I focus on the feeling of the water against my skin. I remember my other colleague who will be at the meeting and how supportive she’ll be. I think about what we’re trying to achieve and why this meeting is so important. Then I just let the water run down my back. When I’m dressed, I make myself a big, nourishing bowl of porridge and some fruit. I taste the blueberries. And I smile.

Mindfulness isn’t about stopping your thoughts, but about finding new ways of being with them.

In the last few steps we’ve focused on skills like problem solving and communication that will equip you to grow and respond more positively to any difficulties you may face in your personal or professional life.

In the next few steps we’ll look at how you can build your resilience by taking care of yourself and making sure that you’re healthy, rested and focused.

Meanwhile, let’s look at what a more mindful and self-aware approach to self-care may mean for you in terms of building your resilience.

Mindfulness and everyday life

It’s a fact of life that we often find ourselves caught in a difficult spiral: we’re really busy and this can make us feel stressed. You know that you need to take care of yourself, but you keep putting off opportunities for relaxation because you’re too busy.

When we accept this kind of thought process, our ‘busyness’, our stress, our need to relax and rejuvenate, and the realisation that we need to care more deeply for ourselves, all start to collapse in on themselves.

Helpful prompts – whether from ourselves or others – to take more care become a source of guilt rather than a call to action. So, what can be done?

Mindfulness as self-care

Mindfulness is a series of self-care techniques that can help us better manage these thought processes. These techniques enable us to take care of ourselves in the midst of our everyday busyness.

These days, many people have heard of ‘mindfulness’, and you may have already tried a form mindfulness, such as meditation. That said, there are also many misconceptions about what mindfulness is, how it works and what it helps us to do.

Addressing misconceptions about mindfulness

Let’s address one of the key misconceptions about mindfulness: mindfulness is not about stopping our thoughts and entering a state of thoughtless calm.

Jon Kabat-Zinn – one of the founders of the contemporary mindfulness movement – defines mindfulness this way:

Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally. It’s about knowing what is on your mind.

In this view, paying attention is about approaching our thoughts, intentions and behaviour with curiosity and generosity.

It’s not about stopping our thoughts or reaching a magical place of no thoughts. It’s learning to be with our thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations in a new way.

Practising mindfulness

Mindfulness practice often focuses on the rhythm of our breathing by drawing our attention to the sensation of each breath at the tip of our nose or to the rising and falling of our belly as we breathe in and out.

This reflects Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness as training ourselves to ‘pay attention, on purpose, in the present moment’. However, Kabat-Zinn’s definition also states that this should be practised in a non-judgemental way.

So, when your mind wanders away from how you’re breathing – as it inevitably will because that’s simply the way our minds work – just notice that this has happened and come back to noticing your breath again. It’s that act of bringing your attention back to a point of focus that’s the essence of mindfulness.

Gradually this practice will allow you to put distance between you and the constant commentary that goes on in your mind.

In other words, as meditation teachers are fond of telling their students: ‘you are not your thoughts’. You are certainly not the negative, overly critical voice that so many of us hear when we don’t quite measure up to the high expectations we often have of ourselves.

Mindfulness in summary

Dr Dan Siegal sums up this mindful, non-judgemental approach to ourselves and others with the acronym COAL:

  • Curiosity – becoming mindfully aware is about discovery, so allow yourself to be surprised.
  • Openness – don’t get stuck by thinking there is only one approach to mindfulness.
  • Acceptance – give both yourself and those around you a break.
  • Love – love can be an everyday emotion where we show real kindness to ourselves and others.

Your task

Explore these simple instructions from Getting started with mindfulness and use either the three-minute body scan or the five-minute breath meditation audio guide to see what mindfulness meditation is like.

When you’re done, share your experiences in the comments.

If you already practise mindfulness or meditation, you may also want to share what you do and what difference this makes in your own life.

This article is from the free online

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