So often we’re encouraged to practice mindfulness, but what exactly is it, and how can it help us to alleviate anxiety?
“Mindfulness”, like self-care, has become somewhat of a buzzword in recent years. However, for many, it is not entirely clear what mindfulness is. Do we have to meditate for hours a day in order to achieve it? Or is it just a case of watching the “ground yourself” infographics we see scattered over social media? I would argue neither. Mindfulness, as a concept, is much more accessible than stereotypes portray and yet, an immensely powerful tool that goes far beyond clickbait on the internet.
According to the Oxford dictionary, mindfulness is “the quality or state of being aware of being conscious or aware of something.” Whilst I agree with aspects of this definition, it does not encapsulate all that mindfulness is for me. I take issue with the depiction of mindfulness as a “quality or state”; the terms too readily bring to mind images of monasteries on remote mountaintops where one goes in order to “achieve mindfulness”. This type of mischaracterisation can do a lot of damage, convincing people that in order to practice mindfulness, you need to be a certain type of person – the type of person who also has the propensity to burn incense and own clothes made of organic fibres.
For me, mindfulness is not something you either have or don’t. It is not a destination that you will at some point reach. It is more of a skill, and just like with any skill, it requires practice. To make an analogy with playing guitar (another skill I am hoping to hone, albeit with limited success), at no point has someone “completed” guitar in that there is nothing more for them to do. Your fingers can always move faster; there are always more scales to learn. However, bit by bit, and with daily practice, you inevitably improve. The same goes for mindfulness. Sure, I’m never going to be totally present and at peace with myself and the world, but that’s okay – and that’s really not the point in the first place. Slowly dawning on me, and to use a well-worn cliché, is that it’s not about where you are heading, but enjoying the journey you take on the way there. Simply put, mindfulness for me is about being present with what is happening right in front of me rather than letting myself dwell in the past or the future.
As I begin to reframe my mind in this way, a lot of things that previously would have caused me a great deal of anxiety seem to not matter quite as much. This is not to say that I have detached myself from the world and taken solace within; quite the opposite, in fact. I believe that practising mindfulness enables me to connect with others and the world around me in a much more positive and honest way. Think about it: how many times have you drifted off as a friend tells a story and then struggled to continue the conversation after? Or got so flustered at an unexpected hold up that you struggle to focus when you eventually get to where you’re meant to be? We are all guilty of these, and I am not suggesting that practising mindfulness is some cornucopia for everyone to be a good person. However, what I can say is that practising mindfulness has made me realise that all of life’s little niggles, and even some of its bigger ones, are part of the course; that most of the time, the most important thing in any given moment is what is right there in front of you. These are the things that you can affect, not what has already happened or is going to happen.
As I have alluded to, practising mindfulness has enabled me to manage a great deal of anxiety that has dominated large parts of my life since adolescence. In particular, I get very worked up about social situations usually because of concerns about what people’s perceptions are of me. Yet, through the practice of mindfulness, I have found it a lot easier to take hold of those anxious thoughts when they pop into my head rather than let them take hold of me, as has so often happened in the past. This is because I have come to realise that those thoughts are just that: thoughts. They do not represent an objective truth about reality and nearly always work to frame myself in a negative light. Having grasped this underlying concept, I’m able to practice mindfulness in everyday life by focusing more and consequently enjoying all the little interactions I have throughout the day without coming away with the sense of dread surrounding whether I handled that okay. Of course, I still get anxious and will probably never feel completely at ease with myself. However, through the practice of mindfulness, I hope to improve – for myself and those around me, one day at a time, bit by bit.