Mindfulness is often described as a state of being where our awareness is focused on the present-moment flow of experience without commentary, analysis or judgement. In this state the mind has less chance to wander and worry about other things, explains Dean Howes from Warwick's Centre for Lifelong Learning.
Mindfulness has been found to be associated with a wide variety of benefits for our mental health, wellbeing, performance and general experience of everyday life. One of the most powerful and distinguishing features of mindfulness is that it is not only extremely useful for navigating the difficulties of life, but also for engaging with and enjoying the positive moments too.
The contemporary field of Mindfulness includes a combination of practices, techniques and philosophies collected from contemplative practices, Buddhism (and other religious practices), psychology, biology and therapeutic approaches. It has many different perspectives, approaches and techniques that support people’s personal journeys of life. Despite the differences between these, they all share some fundamental components and practices. One of these is that mindfulness can be part of a two-step process of change. The first step is to become mindful in and of our experience of the moment. The second step is to try to bring a positive change to the situation and our experience where possible.
During periods of challenge and change the mind, body and emotions tend to react based upon our deeply rooted habitual responses. Whereas some of these may be beneficial, others may well be problematic. The situation in response to the COVID-19 pandemic certainly represents such a period for most of us and our families. Not only are we experiencing our own challenges, changes and problematic habitual responses, but those of people we are sharing the situation with too. Growing our ability to be mindful during this time may support us in trying to navigate the situation whilst also noticing, connecting with and enjoying any positive moments too. Here are five ways mindfulness could help you and your family during lockdown.
1. Noticing NOW
Whether you are settling down for a mindfulness meditation or out there in the busyness of life, the first step towards the mindful state is to pause and notice what is happening around and inside of you. Whilst we often find ourselves naturally attentive of now from time to time, with mindfulness we want to make the process more intentional. We want to purposely embody the moment. We can do this by noticing the experiences coming from outside of us through the five senses. These are always available for us to connect with. In the same manner we can notice our inner experience by connecting with how our mind, body and emotions are in the present moment. No commentary, analysis or judgements are needed – just a gentle curiosity in how our experience is as moment passes to moment.
Many mindfulness techniques and meditations cultivate the awareness of now to counter negative responses brought about by a wondering and worrying mind. A quick and powerful practice is the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 technique and I recommend using it regularly throughout the day. You simply take a few moments with each number noticing now, becoming grounded and present in moment as you do so. You can assign any experience to the numbers and here is an example.
5 sights you can see (e.g. colours, shapes, objects, etc.)
4 sounds you can hear
3 textures you can feel
2 body parts you can feel (e.g. warmest-coolest, relaxed-tense)
1 positive you can bring to the moment right now
2. Noticing rhythms
Rhythms, and the noticing of them, are an important part of cultivating mindfulness. Noticing, allowing and bringing positive changes to our weekly, daily and moment-to-moment rhythms becomes increasingly important during periods of change. Not only can we do this with ourselves, but also with those around us during lockdown.
Just as with the technique above, it’s a good idea to begin noticing things outside of us to begin with. For example, we can notice the ebb and flow of nature around us. As we do, we will begin to notice the patterns and routines that go on without our interference. Then, when we move to notice our own internal rhythms and those of people around us, we can recognise the ones that are beneficial and those that may need a positive change.
One way to cultivate this is to use the breath. Begin by noticing your natural breath rhythm in a given moment. Again, no commentary, analysis of judgement is needed. Rather, just notice the pace of the breath, the depth of it and the way the body is moving with the breath. Don’t worry if the mind wanders, just gently bring it back to the breath as often as is needed. Then, when you are ready, you can bring a more intentional, mindful breath rhythm such as the four or five seconds in, four or five seconds out technique. As you do this you can notice this new breath, focussing upon how it sounds, feels and moves the body now.
3. Cultivating acceptance and compassion
Acceptance and compassion are two more fundamental components of mindfulness and the more we cultivate these internally, the more we can express them outwards in an authentic manner. Most people are their own worst critic and so self-acceptance is usually the first step. In the current situation we may also notice that those around us are critical of themselves too and invite them to be mindful of this. An acceptance of the current situation can help to nullify some of the habitual responses. Viewing it as a unique and shared situation may also help to cultivate compassion in and between us too.
Many mindfulness meditations focus upon developing acceptance and compassion. Probably the most specific are the “Loving-Kindness” meditations that were brought into contemporary mindfulness from Buddhism. Don’t worry if you are not a Buddhist (I am not), there are versions of it that you can link with your own faith or non if you wish to.
4. Finding protected time
Another important component of mindfulness is the concept of protected time. In the current situation many of us will be working from home and some of us will have partners and children doing the same. In times like this it is easy for our work-life, home-life distinctions to become blurred. Being aware of this and creating an effective schedule can be an effective way of navigating lockdown.
In addition, the effective scheduling it is important to remember to find protected time for experiences that you enjoy. Formal mindfulness practise of 10 to 20 minutes per day has been found to produce positive neurological changes after a period of only eight weeks. It also allows us to find time for ourselves to ‘be’ rather than ‘do’. For this I recommend sitting meditations and the Body Scan practice. Both of these produce a relaxed state (although you don’t have to be relaxed to be mindful), allow for deeper changes and, in the case of the Body Scan, are great for helping you and/or family to get to sleep at night.
5. Sharing the journey
Some critics of mindfulness claim that it is self-centred and lacks a social aspect. In my many years if teaching mindfulness and working with clients I have never seen any evidence for this. Indeed, another fundamental concept in mindfulness is that of connectedness. When our own minds are less ‘full’, we have more capacity to relate. Many people have already found that they are connecting more with their family and/or nature during this time and this is something we can lean into, engage with and let grow. With mindfulness though, the aim is not to get to a positive experience or outcome per se, but rather to have an awareness of now that helps us to navigate it the best we can. This means sharing the difficulties as well as the enjoyable moments.
We can cultivate our sense of sharing and connectedness through many everyday life experiences. We can bring a state of mindfulness with us whilst walking, exercising and doing other leisure activities. One of the most effective shared mindfulness experiences we can try during this time is shared mindful eating. Here, we can take protected time out to connect with each other and, of course, the food itself.
6 May 2020
Dr Dean Howes is a Teaching Fellow at the Centre for Lifelong Learning and has recently been made a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. Dean teaches a variety of mindfulness, psychology and coaching courses and modules. He has been a tutor at the centre for over 10 years, teaching on the 2+2 degree, the certificate programme and a range of other programmes, initiatives, workshops, and sessions.
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