As we continue to adapt to the ongoing and unprecedented situation that the world finds itself in it is easy for our mental health and wellbeing to suffer.
So what can we do to not only protect our mental health, but boost it in order to keep ourselves positive?Jenny Hamilton, Programme Leader for Counselling, has shared her thoughts on how applying Mindfulness strategies to our everyday routines can help us to be kinder to ourselves and others.
Mindful self-care during the pandemic
The present lock down we are living through can be a worrying and unusual time. One way to care for ourselves and our relationships with others could be to practice mindful self-care. Mindfulness can be a way to bring compassionate attention to experience in a way that may help us to be kinder to ourselves and to others in our daily lives. This article offers some ideas for mindful self-care in our daily lives.
Mindfulness is the practice of noticing your experience of the present moment with full awareness. We often think of meditation when we think of mindfulness, but it can be a mind-set to bring to our daily lives, rather than a mediation practice alone. The idea is to connect with and explore our moment to moment experience and surroundings, as a compassionate observer. This means we notice our thoughts, feelings and how we are feeling physically, without getting swept along in them. Instead we notice them kindly before deciding how to respond, or if we need to respond at all. A good metaphor commonly used in mindfulness is that we view our thoughts and feelings as clouds passing over the sky. Sometimes they are fluffy and white, sometimes grey, sometimes dark and stormy. But the clouds always pass and the sky remains. In this way we view our experiences of emotional sunshine and storms as a natural part of being human. We don’t judge ourselves for having feelings, even those we may not like, but a mindful pause can help us to explore and come to terms with them kindly and choose our response wisely, considering what is best for ourselves and for others. Mindful awareness is not about brushing over feelings or experiences, but kindly exploring them with compassionate awareness.
Mindfulness starts with not only noticing our experience but doing so kindly. The practice of mindful self-compassion involves recognising that it can be hard to be human. We acknowledge that everyone experiences difficult emotions and challenges, it is just part of being human, but that this isn’t always easy and can be difficult. We may acknowledge that we are all in a really difficult situation right now and we might all reasonably expect to experience difficult feelings of some kind. We can greet these feelings kindly and show ourselves compassion in that moment. Another element is to notice our own thoughts and feelings when we are being hard on ourselves and practice self-kindness instead. If self-critical thoughts arise, acknowledge that what you are feeling is hard and try to be as kind and comforting towards yourself as you would to a dear friend, a small child or a beloved pet. We can extend this practice to others, recognising our common humanity and shared difficulties.
In lockdown many of us are still able to take a daily walk or exercise. We can bring mindful awareness to walks outside, in our gardens or indoors for those who need to stay inside. The ancient practice of walking meditation is often practiced with only ten, slow mindful steps but can be applied to a longer or shorter walk or to any kind of movement.
Those who are unable to move at present, or find walking difficult, can imagine taking a mindful walk in a real or imagined setting in nature, preferably one that you find calming and beautiful. You could alternatively practice noticing your surroundings while sitting.
In mindful walking we bring full awareness to the act of moving and to our wider surroundings. If you are walking, begin by taking a steady stance to feel grounded in the earth. Look ahead to the area where you intend to walk and really take in the whole scene. Notice the detail and how it all fits together. If your walk is in a natural area, notice the trees, flowers, the sound of bird song, whatever is present. Notice any sense of wonder or appreciation for the intricate beauty of nature. As you begin to step forward notice the whole movement from your leg lifting to your foot returning to touch the floor. Notice the experience of walking slowly and deliberately, being fully present in the experience. Sense and savour any areas of beauty, any pleasant smells, sounds or sensations. Do you notice the way the sunlight falls on the grass or the trees, the way the clouds float by, a blue sky or the feel of the breeze on your skin? Take your time to notice details and really take them in. Your mind may wonder, but kindly bring your attention back to noticing the experience of walking. If you are indoors you can notice what is inside the room and outside of the window.
The lockdown has potentially made us all a little more appreciative of food. Mindful eating is a way of noticing and savouring food, slowly and deliberately, with gratitude. In mindful eating we really notice and savour how each individual mouthful of food looks, smells and tastes. We eat slowly, giving the food and the act of eating our full attention. We think about every stage that has gone into creating and preparing the food. So when eating bread, we may consider that a farmer has grown a wheat crop from seed, tending the crop over time. Sunshine and rain has helped it to grow to fruition. Then there is the work of harvesting and transporting the crops to be processed into bread and delivered to the shops. We may appreciate the shopkeepers that enabled us to buy the bread and everyone else involved. This enables us to eat with gratitude and awareness rather than on autopilot. We try to fully experience and savour every mouthful, noticing the smell, taste and texture of the food. This can help us to enjoy and appreciate our food more fully.
It must be acknowledged that we have all experienced a loss of our normal lives and routines and many givens in life that we previously relied on. While it can be important to recognise and honour our feelings in response to this, a mindful gratitude practice can bring balance to our perspective and wellbeing during difficult times. We can become focused on our troubles, but mindful gratitude brings us back to noticing and acknowledging the good in our lives. Focusing for a few moments on what we do have, rather than what we don’t, can aid our wellbeing and enable us to still appreciate life in the face of adversity. We can be grateful for important things in life, if we have our health, our loved ones, that we have shelter and the food we do have. This practice can be applied to the smaller things, like a smile from a passer-by, a flower in the garden or a comforting cuddle from your favourite pet. This can be practiced daily by listing five things you are grateful for each day as you experience them or before bed. You can keep a gratitude journal or just make a mental list. Gratitude can keep us in touch with the people and experiences that are good and important in our lives.
Practice Loving Kindness
Loving kindness is often practiced as a meditation but can also be just a daily practice of mentally extending kind wishes to yourself and others. I present a short version here, intended as a quick activity that can be practiced daily. The loving kindness meditation begins by thinking of an image of someone, real or imagined, who engenders feelings of warmth and safety within you and mentally wishing that they are well and safe. We may say to them in our mind ‘may you be well, may you be happy, may you be safe’. Then extend these wishes to yourself: ‘may I be well, may I be happy, may I be safe.’ Next extend kind wishes to your neighbours and those in your wider local community, and finally to all beings on the planet: ‘may we all be well, may we all be happy, may we all be safe.’ Loving kindness seems a pertinent practice at this time, as we see that our wellness is interlinked with the wellness of all beings in the wider world.