Cat Lamb & Erin Hoare
The word mindfulness can conjure up many mental images; the cross-legged guru atop the mountain, the plethora of colouring books we see in bookstores and even at supermarket checkouts, the svelte yogi downward-dogging their way to inner peace. Mindfulness has become synonymous with ‘rising above’, with breathing deeply and responding calmly in the face of the storm.
There is a considerable amount of science supporting the practice of mindfulness, and there is good reason to see it as a sort of panacea – a fix-all for the troubles of the twenty-first century. It is a well-documented and well-researched area, with demonstrable benefits, ranging from improvements in brain and immune function to greater acceptance, understanding and awareness of problems, emotions, coping styles and personal struggles.
It can be confusing to pull apart the layers of hype that can surround such a beneficial (and ancient) practice and to understand the intention. In a nutshell, the aim of a mindfulness practice is to be aware, present and focussed. The added layer is that of acceptance; to notice where our attention goes in a non-judgemental way, and to be able to redirect it to a task, if that’s where we’d rather it be.
It is common within our school for teachers to start a class with a mindfulness exercise, lasting a few minutes. In supporting students in the challenge of re-directing their attention from class to class, rapidly changing their focus, we help them leave the stresses or excitements of one class at the door and engage with the lesson in front of them.
Ironically, the ‘practice’ of meditation can be stressful, as it doesn’t come easily to all who try it. Feelings of self-doubt are common, as is the desire to just give up. The challenge of being still is too much for some people – adults and children alike (you can read some suggestions we have for helping teens here). It can be quite embarrassing when a colleague starts snoring in a workplace meditation session; the fatigue of being an adult in 2017 can be tiring! We are – universally, it seems – busy. So, if sitting still and meditating is not your cup of tea, try these alternatives.
Activities in which your skill is challenged and attention is required
Think: skiing, mountain biking, writing, painting, knitting
By maintaining focus while undertaking an activity that is both challenging and requires a degree of skilfulness, you are more likely to reach a Flow state. Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes this as a mental state in which you become fully immersed in a feeling of energised focus, engagement and enjoyment. Accessing a state of flow – that feeling of being ‘in the zone’, where time moves at a different speed and you become engrossed in the activity – is only possible if you are present, focussed, and aware.
Failing to focus or letting your mind wander can be a recipe for disaster, particularly in more high-speed pursuits such as skiing or mountain biking. The need to be focussed means all the nattering of the day is forced out of one’s head in order to accommodate quick decision-making and an ability to adapt to conditions. Practising the skill of being present increases your skill in any endeavour, whether it is outside and active or a more sedate craft. Losing focus while knitting or painting results in less than satisfactory results; the importance of staying present and aware is obvious.
Maybe instead of a meditation practice, you could try learning a new skill that requires mental engagement; engaging our brain in this way transfers back to other activities and can produce similar results to a mindful meditation practice.
Easy tasks that allow for ‘no focus’
Think: washing the dishes, using colouring books, ironing your laundry
It’s easy to let your mind wander while you’re completing mundane and repetitive tasks. Whilst there are benefits to daydreaming, if you would like to practice mindfulness, mindfully completing these tasks is beneficial and offers similar benefits to meditation.
By remaining present throughout the activity, choosing to notice where your attention wanders to and gently bringing it back to the task at hand, you are flexing your mindfulness muscles.
Focusing intently on the task, or the way you engage with it –the smell of the ironing, the sound of the coloured pencil rubbing– is another way of practising the skill of being present, focussed and aware.
In using these chores or mundane tasks as a way of practising your mindfulness, you both alter your ability to remain present and focussed in other areas of your life, as well as notice and appreciate the task at hand.
Daily opportunities for practice
Think: mindful eating
Perhaps integrating mindfulness into learning a new skill or during repetitive, daily chores are not appealing options for you - ‘shopping around’ for the ideal context to practise mindfulness is encouraged. Patience may be required to fully achieve the benefits of mindfulness, and being non-judgemental of our thoughts and feelings is a core assumption of the practice and should be applied throughout this process.
One popular and effective practice for mindfulness, both shown in the academic literature (e.g. Shapiro et al. 2008; Evans et al. 2008) and through anecdotal evidence, is mindful eating. Food consumption is often an unconscious or semi-conscious act – breakfast on the run, lunch at one’s desk or between classes, and dinner over discussions or whilst watching television.
Mindful eating refers to eating with full awareness of appearance, aroma, taste, satisfaction and gratitude. It could be as simple as taking a single piece of fruit, placing it in your mouth and keeping it for as long as possible without chewing it, being fully aware of its flavour, texture and all sensory experiences. This simple mindfulness exercise can be practiced readily and can be easily extended to longer durations and a variety of settings.
As with any of these recommended practices, mindful eating requires motivation and patience, however, the outcomes might include greater positive relationships with food, pleasurable eating experiences, and strengthening our mindfulness skill of being fully aware in the present moment.
Thinking outside the box
Think: outdoors, running, walking
It has also been recommended that mindfulness practice can be strengthened by tuning into our environmental surroundings, or through our interactions with such surroundings. We’ve seen growth in the evidence base relating to positive mental health and wellbeing outcomes when people have access to, and use, green spaces.
A study published in 2015 in the British Journal of Sports Medicine examined the emotional experience of a group of walkers in three types of urban environment; a shopping centre, a street in a commercial district, and a green space. Participants walking through the green space reported lower frustration and arousal and higher levels of meditation, compared to the other groups.
So what does this mean for mindfulness practice? Well, if you’re looking to find a setting that will assist, you can expect that being in a green space, such as a park or natural landscape, will more likely induce positive emotions that support mindfulness. The extra prompts may help if you’ve previously found it difficult to tune into your thoughts, feelings and sensations.
You might further extend this practice by walking or running –undertaking some type of physical activity. Whilst engaging in physical activity can be a great way to detach and let your mind wander, it can also be an exceptional way to practise your attention and focus. Try paying attention to your breath, being aware of the sounds of the natural landscape, but then bringing your attention back to your breath, or counting your steps; stopping the count at 20 and restarting to ensure you really are paying attention.
Although the benefits of mindfulness are well-researched and widely practised on an international scale, it is entirely plausible that both the challenge of finding or making time to meditate, as well as the challenge of simply sitting still, will be a bar too high for some.
Our hope is that some of the suggestions we’ve provided might trigger curiosity in the ancient practice and encourage you to explore the benefits in your own unique way.
Aspinall, P., Mavros, P., Coyne, R., & Roe, J. (2013). The urban brain: analysing outdoor physical activity with mobile EEG. British Journal of Sports Medicine, bjsports-2012.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2008). Flow: the psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper Perennial, 2008, c1990.
Davidson, R. J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli, S. F., & ... Sheridan, J. F. (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65(4), 564-570.
Evans, S., et al. (2008). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for generalized anxiety disorder. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 22(4): 716-721.
Shapiro, S.L., Oman, D., Thoresen, C.E., Plante, T.G. and Flinders, T., (2008). Cultivating mindfulness: effects on well‐being. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 64(7), pp.840-862.
Cat is a Trainer and Content Developer for the Institute of Positive Education. She has worked with adolescents in outdoor education in Australia and overseas for over 10 years. Most recently, she lived and worked as an Outdoor Educator and Teacher at Geelong Grammar School’s Timbertop Campus, and lectured in Outdoor Education at Federation University.
Erin is a former Research Fellow for the Institute of Positive Education. She has a PhD in Psychology and leads a research program in adolescent mental health and wellbeing. Erin’s research experience includes working with schools to implement and evaluate comprehensive wellbeing programs, and she has national and international experience in academic, government and community research initiatives.