A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled - Ruby Wax (2016)
Chapter 5. The Six-week Mindfulness Course
Points to Remember
With mindfulness, unlike anything else you do in your life, there is no getting it right. Drop the idea of pleasing Teacher or Mummy or the boss: they can’t harm you – the tests are over now and, this time, you can’t fail. Even when you’re doing it wrong, it’s always right because you’re not trying to make anything better or to empty your mind of thoughts, it’s just about noticing what’s going on in your mind. This six-week mindfulness course is aimed at people who want to be able to fall asleep at night and to be able to focus on the task at hand when they’re awake. These exercises don’t have to be done in an isolated place, in a darkened room with a single piece of gluten-free incense, or on a meditation cushion. I encourage you to incorporate these exercises into your real life, because that’s where you’ll be using them.
And one last point: You don’t have to live in a continual state of mindfulness; it would take ten years to leave your house, let alone put on your socks. These are just exercises, and you practise them for a limited period of time. Eventually, with your new muscles, mindfulness spills into your life and you’ll become the conductor of the orchestra, not just some piddly triangle-player stuffed at the back. I’ll go into this later in the course, but you can also practise anywhere and at any time.
Noticing and Waking Up
I’ve talked about paying attention; now, I’m going to tell you how to do it. This first week, I’ll be weaning you off autopilot by making you aware of how much time you spend on it. I will bring you to your senses.
This first session starts with understanding what I’m talking about when I say that mindfulness is all about noticing and accepting whatever’s happening, in the moment. I hear you say, ‘I’m always noticing – what an obvious thing to say.’ As I explained in Chapter 2, autopilot is a useful tool for making life easier to get through, but in using it you may miss the ride. So this week’s exercise is about just noticing when you’re on autopilot, not beating yourself up about it.
I know the thought of these exercises might make you roll your eyes, but if you don’t practise them, you won’t have the mental muscle to pull the joystick when the plane’s going down.
After each exercise, I’ll suggest some questions you may want to ponder on. My first suggestion is for you to go out and buy a diary. You can write down your reflections, just doodle on it, or if you’re like me, do a ‘to do’ list that doesn’t end … ever. You paid for it; you do whatever you want with it.
You should write at least a few lines in your diary each day throughout the course. I’ll suggest some questions you may want to ponder on.
Find something you enjoy putting in your mouth (within the realms of normality). Cut whatever it is (chocolate, a banana, a meatball … please don’t make me go on, I’m sure you can come up with something yourself) into bite-sized pieces.
Place a morsel in the palm of your hand. Without feeling ridiculous (make sure no one is looking), focus on what it looks like as if you’ve never seen anything like it, as if you’re a newborn or an alien (whichever is easier to identify with). With a sense of curiosity, notice the colour, the edges, the shape, the contours …
Slowly, slowly, track the internal sensation of lifting your arm to pick up the object and your hand to place it on your tongue. Notice the taste, shape, weight. (Do not swallow.)
After a minute or so, chew slowly and notice what sweetness or bitterness tastes like. Notice what the urge to swallow feels like. Finally, chew and swallow with second-by-second awareness, experience it sliding down your throat and into your stomach.
It’s not about what a great swallower you are but about experiencing something you do every day by paying close attention. If at any point during the exercise your thoughts take you somewhere else, bring your focus back to the taste.
Here are questions to have in your mind.
· How was this experience different from when you eat normally?
· What did you notice about the sensations in your mouth: taste, texture, chewing, swallowing?
· Where did your mind go when you lost your focus on the taste?
Choose an activity you do regularly each day and, for a few moments while you’re doing it, try to pay attention to every sensation – sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch – not thinking about it, just trying to sense it. Among other things, you might notice how irritating it is that I always use italics when I type notice. (I’ll stop it now.)
You’ll do the same exercise using the same activity each day of the week. Here are a few suggestions.
Showering What does the water feel like? How does ‘wet’ feel? Experience the movements you make while soaping up and washing the soap off again as if you’ve never done them before in your life. Notice when your mind takes over, then bring your focus back to the feel of showering.
Making tea Slowly, try to experience the detailed sensations of pouring, stirring, smelling, tasting and, hopefully, not burning your lips off. But if you do … try to sense that, too.
On your computer Tune into what the sensations are of tapping your fingers on the keys. Come off autopilot and notice when your mind begs you to type something and, when you do, come back to the feeling in your fingertips. Notice: are your shoulders humped over? (I do most of my emails in the posture of the Hunchback of Notre Dame.)
Here’s a really easy one: Each day when you go through a particular doorway or sit in a certain chair, use it as a reminder to notice what’s going on around you; the sounds, smells, sights and the feeling in your body. Oh, come on, you can’t get away with saying you’re too busy to walk through a doorway.
Noticing Your Mind Has a Mind of Its Own
The exercises and homework from Week One are to help you begin to notice the difference between the thinking, ‘doing’ mind and the sensing, ‘being’ mind. In Week Two you will learn how to switch focus between the two. Remember: when you notice your mind has wandered, shift your focus back without thinking you’ve done something wrong. For me, this is one of the most difficult things to do, notice that my mind’s snared me again; no one is as cruel a disciplinarian as me on me.
This week, you’re starting your mental-fitness regime and beginning your first round of sit-ups. You’re taking charge of your mind by telling it where to focus, just like a pole-vaulter knows, through practice, just where to land the pole. (Just go with the image: even I don’t understand it completely.)
There are two mindfulness exercises that can be done in a variety of places: on a train (if you shut your eyes, wear earphones to make it look like you’re listening to music); on a bus (same as above); having your hair cut or coloured; while you’re on call waiting and they play that relentless muzak; waiting at the dentist’s; at a launderette; during a boring meeting (keep your eyes open!).
Exercise: Scanning the Body
Practise for at least ten minutes (but if you have more time, go for twenty). Before you start, commit to a set time, and stick to it.
This is the essence of mindfulness. Using specific parts of your body as an anchor, take your focus to each one so that, when your thoughts snare you (as they always will), you can take your focus back to where it was. (Count that whole process as one sit-up.) Remember: the more you repeat the action of noticing when your mind wanders and bringing it back, the stronger your ‘attentional muscle’ becomes.
Begin by moving your back away from the chair so that your spine is self-supporting (but not rigid), your shoulders are relaxed and your arms are resting on your lap. You can keep your eyes open or close them. If you’re sitting cross-legged, sit up straight; again, shoulders relaxed.
Bring your focus to your feet, where they contact the floor – don’t think about them but sense them. Keep focused and, when you notice that your mind’s wandered off on some story or other, without getting irritated, bring your focus back to the soles of your feet. Remember: the point isn’t to stop your mind from wandering, it’s to practise being kind to yourself when you notice it’s wandered.
After a few minutes, bring your attention to where your body contacts the seat of the chair, feeling the whole weight of gravity pulling you to that point. When you notice that your mind has wandered, you know what to do: don’t be hard on yourself – everyone’s mind does it, it’s supposed to wander, so be nice and take your attention back to where you’re in contact with the chair. Now let that attention go …
Try to remember to breathe throughout this exercise – it really helps with staying alive. And now, using your focus like a spotlight, draw it from the base of your spine, through each of your vertebrae, up to your neck. Do any areas feel held, hunched or tense? Whatever you notice, don’t do anything to correct or change it; just notice it, then bring your focus back to the raw sensation.
Now send focus on the front and sides of your body, being aware of your whole torso. Let the in-breath fill it and the out-breath contract it. After a minute, let that focus go …
Bringing your focus to both hands – fingers, palms, the backs of the hands – notice if they’re warm, cold, clawed or relaxed. Let it go …
Move your attention to your neck and shoulders, zooming into every area and focusing on different sensations as you scan.
Now, up to your face: your chin, lips, cheeks, nose, eyes, forehead and the top of your skull. Do you sense what facial expression you’re making? When your focus drifts, as always, notice, be nice to yourself and refocus on the exact part of the face you were focusing on before.
Next, try to feel your whole body from inside: your bones and muscles, where you’re in contact with the chair, the skin wrapped around you and the air outside your skin. Try to feel the breath filling your body from your toes up to the top of your head, and out again like a bellows. In the last few minutes, come back to the sense of just sitting and breathing, feet on the ground, body on the chair. Wiggle your toes, open your eyes if they were closed, get on with your day, and maybe hold on to that sense of being present.
For those of you who find it too excruciating to focus on just one part of your body at a time, just give your body a general scan, noticing if there’s any tightness, discomfort, strain or numbness. It’s like checking your internal weather.
Here are some sample questions for your journal.
· Which area of the body did you find the most difficult to focus on, and which was the easiest?
· Where did your mind go when it pulled you away? Were there any themes?
· What was your immediate reaction when you caught yourself mind-wandering?
Exercise: Using Sound and Breath as an Anchor
Practise this one for ten, or twenty, minutes, too.
Using your own senses for a workout is incredibly handy because, wherever you are, there they are, too. You don’t need to find a gym, or a spiritual retreat in the Maldives; you’re sitting on all the equipment you’ll ever need.
Rather than use specific parts of your body as an anchor to stay steady, in this exercise, you’re going to focus on sound and breath.
Bringing your back away from the back of your chair, your spine straight but not rigid, the crown of your head pointing to the sky, ground yourself by moving your attention to the soles of both feet, where they contact the ground. Shift your attention to the points at which your body is in contact with the chair … After a moment, let go of those sensations …
Now, move your attention to sound, so you’re listening … to the right, to the left, in front, behind, trying to focus on the different pitches, tones and volume. After a while, you might notice that you’re starting to label the sounds, or judging whether you like them or not. If you don’t like them, or your mind has drifted, notice/ be nice/ refocus. This will happen hundreds of times, and hundreds of times you will gently bring your attention back to the sounds. Let the focus go …
Now shift your focus to your breathing. Focus on it in the same way that you let the sounds come to you. Choose an area: the nose, the back of the throat, the chest or abdomen; whichever feels the most comfortable. If it’s the nose, for example, see if you can feel cool air coming in and warmer air going out. Feel the expansion and contraction in your body in as much detail as you can and let the breath breathe you rather than you controlling it. Notice what happens in the gap between the in-breath and the out-breath.
If it is too much of a challenge to keep your mind on your breath, try counting each breath up to ten and then beginning again. (In/ out is one; in/ out is two, etc.) If you get lost, just guess where you left off and start again. (Remember: this is not about getting it right but about noticing when your mind has drifted.) When you notice you’re thinking in the past or the future, ruminating or mind-wandering, go back to the area you were breathing from, knowing that, wherever you are, when you notice that your mind is agitated or scattered, you can always refocus on your breathing as an anchor.
Here are a few questions for your journal.
· How was this different from the listening and breathing you do every day?
· What did you find most difficult when you were focusing on the sound? On the breath?
· When your mind snared you, do you remember where it went? Was it past or future thinking, worrying, planning, fantasizing, or was it just blank?
You can choose to do both these exercises each night over the following six days, or you can alternate them.
Now that you’ve learnt to focus on the breath and your body, here’s a quick way to settle your mind down when the red mist of pressure frazzles your brain. It’s called the three-minute breathing exercise.
Three-minute Breathing Exercise
Most people can relax watching TV, playing football or at a wine bar with friends. The problem is that, when you’re about to take an exam, give a speech in front of five hundred people or have an interview for a job, you can’t whip out a football or watch TV to calm yourself. However, if you have practised some mindfulness just before these nerve-racking challenges, you’ll be ready to use this portable, three-minute breather. It travels wherever you go.
There are three parts to this exercise; each part lasts about a minute or so.
1. Widen your focus by tuning into every thought in your mind, inviting them all in and just letting them rip: the good, the bad, the ugly. After about a minute, let it go …
2. Narrow your focus to the pinpoint sensation of breathing. Zoom in on a full breath through the nose, throat, chest or abdomen, feeling your lungs expanding on the in-breath and contracting on the out-breath. After about a minute, let it go …
3. Widen your focus once more to your breath filling your whole body, from the top of your head, down through your body to your toes, on an inhale and on an exhale, feeling the breath empty out like a giant bellows.
Try to take a three-minute breather twice a day, particularly when you feel that your mind is sizzling from obsessive phone usage/ compulsive emailing, or from some resentment you are burning with, to give yourself a break from all the mind-chatter. I promise: after you do it, you’ll feel better.
Think of the sitting exercises above as like practising scales on a piano to tone and strengthen your ability (eventually) to play Rachmaninov with ease. A ballet dancer doesn’t just do pliés at the bar in order to do better pliés but because, hopefully, one day, they’re going to dance in Swan Lake. With the practice of mindfulness, you’ll be able to apply the skills of anchoring to your daily life. (You won’t, however, be asked to join the Bolshoi.)
The brain doesn’t end at the neck, it continues sending messages along the spinal cord, which branches out to millions of miles of blood vessels (enough to encircle the world three times, I’ve been told) that carry blood to every one of your trillions of cells. There is no dividing line between where your mind ends and your body begins; your body and your mind are all of a piece, like a onesie. They are in constant communication with each other, interpreting feedback from the world outside and the world inside and creating the reality you inhabit.
Mindful movement is about how to intertwine your brain and your body – which is not, as many believe, a sack of skin that you’re condemned to drag around like a giant backpack. We think we pay attention to our bodies by pumping and pummelling them in the gym to make them tighter, by sticking in implants or ‘liposucking’ them, but to relate to our body as a part of us isn’t usually on the agenda. Mostly, we use our body as bait to haul in a mate.
We pride ourselves on pushing ourselves to our limits and beyond. This is why you hear people say, ‘I shopped till I dropped’; ‘I’ve done all my Christmas cards and it’s only July’; ‘I lost 100lbs in one week. Now I’m on life-support, but I am a size six.’
I once saw a physical-fitness trainer turn up at the gym kitted out in a back brace, as if it was some kind of war wound and he was awarded it for an act of bravery. He’d disjointed every one of his spinal discs, or something, in order to stay bulked up, with no awareness that the injury, too, was something he had done to himself. What did he think had happened? That a meteorite fell from the sky and caused the injury? You hear screams of agony coming out of the gym as if some of these men have just given birth through their nostrils.
I have a friend who, in the name of yoga, used to tie her feet in a bow above her head. She proudly told me that she has had to have her hips replaced … because that’s how flexible she is.
Mindful movement is about becoming aware of your bodily senses in so far as they are reflections of your thoughts. If your body is tight and rigid, your thoughts are probably also inflexible. If your spine is held in a hunched-over posture and your shoulders are up to your ears, you could be locked in a state of anger or fear. In addition to these feelings, we can become angry at our bodies for not doing what we want them to do, and when the kick-in-the-face realization dawns on us that our body will eventually fall to bits anyway, no matter how much we did on the StairMaster. Then, as our body starts to lose its tone and its strength, we push it harder and harder, punishing it for letting us down rather than thanking it for the ride so far. (By the way, I haven’t accomplished this: I’m still whipping myself into shape; as I type, I’m tightening my glutes.) Very few of us listen to what our body is trying to tell us, because we’re lost in our thoughts. The body can be a fantastic barometer and show us how we are, not how we think we are.
Mindful movement tunes you into every part of your body, so that you pay attention to any tension or resistance and notice when the mind tries to take you away and create more tension with its endless bad reviews. (‘Why am I feeling this? I want it to go away.’ ‘I’m just an iglooed mountain of lard. I’m useless.’)
I notice that on the rare occasions when my body feels free (maybe after a strong massage, where someone has had to use a hammer to give me some relief from my solid, turtle-shell back) my mind is clearer, I’m less anxious and I become a bundle of joy to be around. When I spend the day in my usual Hunchback of Notre Dame, reptilian-rage position, with my shoulders up so high I can wear them as earmuffs, I’m a bitch. How you feel in your body is a physical manifestation of your thoughts, how you relate to your thoughts is how you relate to people, and how you react to people is how you react to the world. To focus into your body is like going on an internal retreat, away from the fascist dictator of your mind. So scanning your body for tension and then releasing it is a way of getting off your own back.
With practice, you will eventually be able to discern when you’re working at your limit, pushing yourself hard enough to get results but not so hard that you’re in agony. By building up your awareness of this physical limit, you can apply it to your life and push yourself just enough to work at your optimum. You will be tuned into your body, so when it’s telling you there’s too much pain, you’ll hear it and pull back.
Please note that there are some people who go too far the other way, refusing to move or even attempt one sit-up (see couch potato), giving excuses like, ‘I’m just naturally fat.’ Have you ever seen an obese newborn? I don’t think so. Your body, if you listen to it, will let you know when it needs to work harder and when it needs to lay off.
Before MBCT, Jon Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist and Emeritus Professor of Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, founded MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction). He worked with people who were in such chronic pain from injury or disease that their doctors couldn’t help. He told his patients that, rather than repressing or ignoring the pain, they should send their focus to the precise area where they were experiencing discomfort. By focusing on the raw sensations (throbbing, pulsing, stabbing), the minds of his patients ceased their relentless catastrophizing and the patients began to notice that their pain wasn’t a solid block. The sensations came and went, grew stronger and weaker … they were always transforming. Kabat-Zinn had enormous success with his patients: they still felt their pain, but their relationship to it changed and that made it manageable. Taking on board the idea that pain changes moment by moment is what liberated them from their prison of constant agony.
This week’s exercises, as you would expect, are all about mindful movement. I’m giving you three options.
1. Normal mindful movement
2. Mindful movement in the gym (for people who can’t stand mindful movement)
3. Mindful movement on the go (for people who can’t even stand mindful movement in the gym)
The movements in all the exercises which follow will train you to use your body as an anchor, something to come back to when your mind starts to go frantic on you. The stretching will make your body feel less tense and caged in by your muscles. As you stretch, both the body and the mind free up, and this is not just a metaphor: as you move, more blood flows to your organs and more oxygen flows to the brain. Usually, if your body is rigid, so is your mind … unless of course you’re Stephen Hawking, and then all the laws of logic go up the spout.
When practising mindful movement, do not do it: on a train; in a taxi; in a queue; in the waiting room of the dentist’s office (unless you’re alone); in a meeting room at work (if the walls are glass and people can see in). (I don’t really care what people think, so I do it in all these places.)
Exercises: Normal Mindful Movement
Do these exercises for ten to twenty minutes each day for six days.
Stand with your feet slightly apart, your spine straight but not rigid, your shoulders relaxed and the crown of your head pointing to the sky. Now bring your focus to the top of your head and slowly let the weight of it pull you to the right, so that your right ear is pointing towards your right shoulder. Let it hang there and notice the sensation. Are you straining to get your head lower to your shoulder, or allowing it to hang by its own weight? While your head’s still in that position, scan your body for any other indication of strain. Now add the breath … Use the breath as if it’s a beam of light, helping you find and investigate where the tension is. On the inhale, send your focus to the area of the stretch on the left side of your neck and, on the exhale, release it. As it’s suspended, your mind might no longer be on the sensation itself but lost in a story. If you notice this is happening, send the focus back to the area where you feel the stretch. Now slowly, still focused on every movement, bring your head back to centre and move it towards your left shoulder. Using the in-breath, now bring your focus to the stretch on the right side of your neck, and release it on the out-breath. Bring it up to the centre and notice what effect the exercise has had. Now let go of the focus … Repeat twice on each side.
Bring your attention to both your shoulders. Lift them both and circle them slowly forwards five times. Try to stay with every sensation of the movement. Notice when you’re making too much of an effort, or if you’re tensing any other part of your body. Let your shoulders simply drop at the lowest point of the circle rather than pushing them down. Inhale when you lift them up; when you circle them, exhale so the breath focuses your attention on the movement. Now do the same in the opposite direction; again, five times. Are you still breathing? Come back to neutral and become conscious of the effects the exercise has had. Let the focus go …
Bring your attention to all the sensations in both of your arms as you raise them up above your head, palms facing each other. Feel the sensation of their weight as you raise them. Gradually, bend from your waist to the right, your arms parallel, either side of your head. Bend far enough so that you can feel the stretch but not beyond your limit. Notice if your mind has left the building and, if so, be nice and refocus on the stretch. Come back to upright, your arms still above your head, and lean your body to the left, feeling the pinch of your waist on the left and the long stretch along the right. Come back to upright again and lower your arms to your sides. Feel the effects of the stretch and release your focus. Repeat twice on each side.
Stand up straight, with your head up and your legs hip-width apart. On an exhale, slowly curve forward, letting your head lead and feeling the weight of it pulling you down, vertebra by vertebra (keep breathing) until you’re hanging at the bottom, allowing gravity to take over. Even if you’ve just moved an inch, don’t push; the point is to be aware of what’s happening in your body and mind. On another exhale, unroll, bringing up your spine, vertebra by vertebra, as if you were stacking up dominoes. Stand very straight, until your head feels balanced on top of your spine. Feel the effects of this exercise. Repeat.
Get on all fours, your shoulders over your hands and your hips above your knees. Now, slowly, on an exhale, arch your spine up so it’s humped like an angry cat and on the inhale bend your back the other way, raising your head and your bottom in the air. Repeat three times.
Sit on the ground with both legs together in front of you, and curl your head forward towards your knees. Again, it’s all about noticing what’s going on, not about how far you can bend, so even if you move only a hair’s breadth, don’t push yourself. Try to stay in the position you’ve reached, inhaling and exhaling, sending focus to any area that aches or seems to be feeling any strain. Notice whether, while you’re in this position, anything changes. Repeat twice.
Now lie on the ground on your back with your legs and your feet together and bent in an ‘L’ shape, your feet in the air. Stretch your arms flat on the floor at right angles to your body. As you inhale, bring both legs, still together and bent, towards the floor to the right, sensing each part of the movement and using your abdominal muscles for stability. Go as far as you can, noticing the stretch and breathing into your left side. On the exhalation, bring the legs back to the centre and, on an inhalation, slowly move them to left, feeling the stretch on your right side. On an exhale, bring them back to the centre.
If you have any problems with your back, keep your feet on the floor and let your knees tilt to either side as far as they can, with your feet and ankles following. In this position you can turn your head the opposite way to your body to give an extra stretch. Repeat twice on each side.
Exercises: Mindful Movement in the Gym (for people who can’t stand mindful movement)
When you’re walking, running, swimming, sitting in front of the computer or partying, scan your body for any area that’s tense and breathe into it. Remember: every time you send focus to a sense in your body, you’re not slacking, you’re strengthening the parts of your brain that enhance self-regulation. Even if you do this only for a minute a day, it gets results. Go look in a brain scanner if you have one handy.
There will be those of you who find the Mindful Movements too boring even to discuss and too slow to tolerate, but you, too, can be mindful: during your regular exercise regime. If you want to pump it like a maniac wearing an ‘I ROCK’ baseball cap while some trainer the size of the Hulk barks, ‘Crunch it till you cry, I want you bleeding from your ears! No pain, no gain!’ If you’re paying attention to the area you’re exercising, you’ll still see better results than if you were mind-wandering. New neurons will not grow in the region of your brain that corresponds to the area you’re exercising unless you’re focused on those particular parts of your body. If a piano player isn’t focused on their fingers, they’ll never master the piano. So, whatever you’re pumping, pulling, sucking in or flexing, be aware of it. If you’re just doing it on automatic, you may end up looking like some over-buffed gorilla in a neck brace.
Here are some suggestions for some fast and furious exercises.
On an Exercise Bike or a Running Machine
Exercise for however long you usually exercise, but try these, each for around twenty seconds (use the timer on the equipment, or try counting for twenty breaths).
While you are cycling or running, send your attention to your feet, specifically the points at which they contact the pedals or the running belt. Feel each movement, and breathe. After twenty seconds, let the focus go …
If you’re on a bicycle, bring your attention to your pelvic area wherever it makes contact with the seat and to your hips and waist. (In other words, the area that would be covered if you were wearing full-sized underpants.) Breathe into all the sensations you are experiencing in these areas. Notice if your mind wanders, and if it does be nice to yourself and refocus on that under-pant terrain. If you’re running, focus on the same region for twenty seconds. Then let the sensation go …
Now, for twenty seconds, shift your focus first to the bottom of your spine then all the way up to your shoulders. What does your posture feel like from the inside? Are you hunched or tensed? Are your shoulders back or forward? Notice it, but don’t change it. Let it go …
Then, for twenty seconds, feel the sensation of your hands on the handlebars, or just the sensation in your hands. Are they gripping tightly, limp or numb? Watch when your mind carries you away and bring it back to your hands. Let it go …
Bring your attention to your neck and face. Is your neck forward, back, held or balanced? Scan your facial features: chin, jaw, lips, tongue, nose, forehead, scalp. What expression are you wearing on your face? Do you look like a gargoyle? Again, do this for twenty seconds.
Finally, for twenty seconds, bring your focus to your whole body from your feet, up through your body, to the top of your head; fill up like a balloon on the inhale and empty on the exhale. Let it go …
If you find yourself unable to focus on any of these areas, the most important thing is not to give yourself a hard time. Go back to doing what you usually do on the bike. If you need to distract yourself by watching MTV, listening on your headphones or perusing Heat magazine, go ahead. If you notice you’re doing it, then it’s mindful – even if you’re mindfully watching MTV.
Arm Curls with Weights
Place a hand-weight (of the weight you usually work with) or a tin of beans (or whatever) in your right hand. Start with your arm falling straight by your side and then, on an exhale, bend it at the elbow and bring the weight up to shoulder height. On an inhale, lower your arm to your side. Try to pay attention to where any twinges may be, scanning your body to check if you’re tensing any other part of it which isn’t involved in the curl. Repeat ten times on each arm. If that’s too hard, reduce to five.
Hold a weight in your right hand then lift your arm so it is pointing straight up beside your head. On an inhale, bend your elbow and lower the weight behind your back (as if you were reaching to scratching between your shoulder blades. On an exhale, lift the arm up again. Repeat ten times on each arm and, as you become more proficient, build up the number.
Lie on your back with your legs bent and your feet on the floor about hip-width apart. Put both hands behind your head and, on an exhale, pull in your abdomen as if you’ve been punched and curl your upper body forward (without jerking yourself up by your neck). Scan your body to make sure you’re just using your stomach muscles and nothing else. On an inhale, uncurl down to the floor. Repeat five to ten times.
Lie on your back with your legs bent and your feet on the ground about hip-width apart. On an exhale, tighten your bottom and lift it so that your back arches, your navel pointing to the sky. Hold the position, still clenching your bottom and feeling the slight ache (not agony) in the back of your thighs, then lay your back down again. There you have it: you’re getting a tight bum while being mindful. Repeat five times.
Note any observations on the exercises you have done in your diary.
Here are some questions to have in your mind.
· How were the exercises different when you started to practise mindfulness while doing them?
· When your mind wandered, did you recall any of the thoughts you had?
· When you held a position, what, if any, changes did you notice?
Again, this week, try to do the three-minute mindfulness breathing exercise twice a day, either when you notice that your thoughts are scattered and you’re becoming anxious, or simply to get back into the present.
Exercises: Mindful Movement on the Go (for people who can’t even stand mindful movement in the gym)
You don’t go to a gym or do any exercise? This works for me. You know when you’re carrying a couple of heavy bags and feel like your arms are being yanked out of your armpits? Bitching about it won’t help; it will only make you more frustrated. Why not try – as you have to carry the bags anyway – to make use of the time not just to get mindful but also to build up some muscles? As you’re walking, even if you are in a hurry, lift the bag in your right hand up towards your shoulder and hold for a count of ten. Just as you would with a weight, focus into the area where you feel the ache and breathe into it. On the street, it’s crucial to do a body scan for tension, because we’re used to lifting our shoulders up or tensing our bodies when we carry something heavy. (Why some of us are happy to lift weights in the gym but don’t make the most of it outside with heavy bags I do not know.) Now repeat with your left arm.
I also do tricep curls in public on the street, because I really don’t really care what people think of me and usually people don’t notice anything anyway. You raise and straighten one arm, holding a bag beside your head, then bend your arm and lower the bag behind your back. Lift the bag and straighten your arm for a count of ten. Repeat on the other arm. Be aware of all the sensations you’re experiencing and, if your mind goes on holiday, bring it back.
Pushing a shopping trolley is good for strengthening and stretching your arms. Pull the trolley towards you (it’s better if there’s a lot of merchandise in it), your hands clutching the bar as they normally would, then push it away and pull it back to you ten times. (Don’t tense your shoulders, just use your arms, or you’ll get the vulture wings my mother had.) Now hold the bar of the trolley but with your palms facing up, and repeat.
Hold the bar of the trolley and allow the trolley to roll forward so your back gets a long stretch, parallel to the ground. (If you’re still in the supermarket, pretend you’ve dropped something and you’re looking for it on the floor.) Stand upright again. Repeat five times.
Working with Luggage
Are you at the airport or the train station, and late? Even if you are, don’t tense up while you’re running to make that plane or train. Focus on where your feet make contact with the floor to stop your thoughts getting at you with, ‘You idiot, you’re late again! This is all your fault – you were taking a bath when the taxi pulled up. Typical.’ Straighten your body, relax your shoulders and take the leash attached to your wheelie. Pull it towards you then push it away again. Repeat this ten times. This bulks up your biceps mindfully and you still make it to the plane or train.
(You could try this while walking a large dog, but I wouldn’t recommend it: you might accidentally choke it.)
An elevator is the perfect vehicle in which to stretch out your body. Put your foot on the handrail (if you can) and bend towards it, stretching the back of your standing leg. Repeat on the other leg. Next, standing, bend one leg backwards and grab your ankle behind you, stretching those thighs. Repeat on the other leg. If you’re going up to the top of the Empire State or the Shard, you’ll have time to continue, by lying on the floor and lifting one leg at a time in a leg stretch. You could even try a backbend. Really, you can do pretty much anything in a lift. And if someone else is there too, ignore them, because you’re getting fit and they aren’t.
Stretching at the Luggage Carousel. Or Wherever
Use your time effectively when you’re waiting for your luggage to show up (or in any queue). Rather than shouting or becoming inwardly furious (it won’t get your luggage there any quicker or move the queue any faster, you know), take the opportunity to do a neck stretch, a shoulder roll and a side stretch. Still waiting? Try the backbend. If you’re doing these exercises with awareness rather than looking around you in embarrassment, you’re being mindful.
For anyone carrying a shoulder bag … Put the strap over one of your shoulders, then lean your head over the other shoulder so you feel a great stretch along your neck and, if you lean deeper into it, your waist. Remember to change shoulders, or you’ll find that you’re lopsided.
Mindfulness of Feelings and Emotions
Just as we’ve sent the focus of our attention to our feet, our seat, to sounds, the body and breathing, now we’re going to send it to where we feel emotions in the body. The process is exactly the same: you can feel an ache of emotion in your body as much as you can feel an ache or a strain during a physical stretch in an exercise. In both cases, the idea is to move towards the feeling, not run from it. If you think, ‘I don’t want these feelings, I want them to go away,’ they will attack you harder and stick around longer.
Cocktails of chemicals are constantly cascading through your veins, creating feelings and emotions; you’ll never fathom out how this works, so just experience them and skip the interpretation. (Unless you’re a poet, in which case, go for it.)
Pure awareness of a feeling (physical or emotional) allows you to go below negative self-talk and means that you don’t have to pick the scab of memory. If you catch the feeling quickly and hone in on it, you’ll nip the verbal translation in the bud. The idea is to contain the fire before it catches.
I revealed earlier that I am (but less so, these days) addicted to rage. Letting it rip used to be my favourite hobby. On a day out, I’d hunt down traffic wardens, wait for them behind a tree then jump out, crazier than a coot. They never tore up the parking ticket they’d given me, but my fury felt great, and fed my addiction. The next day, I’d have a hangover from the all bile I’d brought up.
Only when I became aware of my dangerous patterns of thinking and how they affected other people did I start to loosen the strings of my straitjacket. I realized that each time I had a hit of rage, I was hard-wiring and mainlining my habit even more.
Whenever I do any physical exercise, I notice that, in certain parts of my body, I feel a familiar ache. Even if I do temporarily get rid of it, the next day it’s back again, in the same place. I’ve learnt to live with it, treating my pains like old friends. I wake up going, ‘Hello, there’s the old knee pain. How ya doin’?’ ‘Yup, there it is, my cramping neck, doing its thing. Howdy!’ It’s the same with emotions: I’m learning to recognize the familiar ones as they arise and greet them with, ‘Hi there, ache in my heart, didn’t I have you yesterday … and the day before … and most of my life? Welcome back.’ We all have certain emotions that repeat themselves again and again: our emotional theme tunes.
Just by accepting what’s there without pushing it away, complaining about it or denying it, the feelings will transform in intensity, perception or location. When they become too acute, take the focus back to your breath or directly to the raw feelings. When you’re ready, come back to the sense of breathing.
Exercise: Mindful Emotions
Practise for five to ten minutes.
Remember: you can sit anywhere for these exercises, or, if you really hate sitting, do it in any position, anywhere. If you happen to be sitting … come forward with your back straight and the crown of your head pointing to the sky and bring your focus to both feet. Let that go and bring your attention to your breath, not forcing it but allowing it to happen on its own. (If it’s easier, count ten breaths.) Now widen your focus so that you are open to any emotional sensation in your body that might be pulling on your attention. When you’ve located the area, zoom in and investigate it with curiosity, not criticism. What shape is it? Is it pulsing, throbbing, stabbing or tickling?
Exercise: Dealing with the Difficult
You can continue this exercise on from the exercise above, or use it as a separate one. Practise for five to ten minutes.
As you’re sitting there, focusing on your breathing, bring to mind a difficult situation that’s either going on in your life at the moment or was in the past, a situation when you felt angry, resentful, anxious, stressed – anything that still has a small sting. Be aware that you’re not bringing up these negative feelings in order to hurt yourself but to acknowledge and befriend the darker feelings that exist … that are there anyway, even if you’re not conscious of them. Turn to them with compassion and care, as you would to a friend who is suffering. And, once you’ve recognized the feeling, zoom in on where it is and use it as an anchor. Just before you finish, imagine a good experience which you’ve had in the past and see if your emotions resonate with the positive memory. Notice that you can influence your emotions by switching to more positive images in your mind; if the emotion gets too hot, refocus on a positive one. For the last few moments, bring your point of focus back to your breath, back to where you feel more peaceful and present.
Keep a diary over the next six days, jotting down your mindful feelings.
Here are a few questions to have in your mind.
· What emotion did you bring to mind in the exercise?
· Draw a picture of a body and illustrate where the feeling was. What colour was it? Shape? Size?
· Draw another picture of the body and illustrate what, if anything, changed during the exercise.
Again, this week, try doing the three-minute mindfulness breathing exercise twice a day.
Mindfulness of Thought
Just as with emotions, your thoughts can become habit-forming and obsessive. At times, they can be a waste of head space; at other times, they’re a tiny bit useful because they give us poetry, art, literature, language, communication, civilization … to name a few. I’ll keep saying it: when they’re good, they’re very, very good; and when they’re bad they’re evil. Our mission is to pick and choose to use them, and not to have them use us. So it’s back to mindfulness, which is all about shifting the paradigm of your relationship to your thoughts: learning to sit back and choose when to grab a thought and when to let it go.
If you’re observing your thoughts with a clearer, more settled mind, it goes without saying that some gems might arise from the darkness in the form of a great/ funny/ creative/ original thought.
Sometimes when I’m practising mindfulness, a fantastic idea bubbles out of the darkness to the surface and I sit there like an insane person, laughing out loud. As soon as I’m done, I grab a pen to get it down fast before it sinks back into the murk. Mindfulness isn’t about sitting like a dead, frozen fish, you’re there observing your thoughts, and with time it should become easier to discriminate between which thoughts are winners and which are dross to be flushed out on arrival. It’s said that most creative thinking takes place when you’re not striving for it; this is why people have epiphanies in the shower. It’s probably similar for people who pan for gold; suddenly, they notice something sparkling there in the mud. This is how it feels when I occasionally notice a great line lying there in the murk.
Be Your Own Therapist
In the same way that you deal with hot emotions by standing back from them, you can learn to detach from your thoughts. With mindfulness, you’re the therapist to yourself, listening to your own deep, dark thoughts. Just like the shrink, who doesn’t bring any judgement to the table, your mind, if it’s not threatened or fearful, will reveal to you who you are, and then you can unchain yourself from those limiting, destructive thoughts and create new ones. If you don’t look in and become aware, you’ll be trapped in habits and keep playing the same old tune, like a needle that’s stuck in the groove of a record.
Exercise: Mindful Thinking
Practise for ten minutes every day for the next six days.
Sit on a chair or a cushion and bring your back upright, unsupported, your head balanced on top of your spine. Sense both feet flat on the ground and the weight of your body on the seat, and bring your focus to your breath (counting to ten with each breath, if it’s easier). Notice when your mind wanders and bring your focus back to that pinpoint of breathing. Expand your awareness to sound; just listen, letting the sound come to you without hunting for it.
Now bring your attention to your thinking, watching whatever comes up, just as you let the sounds come to you. If you like, imagine these thoughts as clouds continuously moving across the sky; some are heavy, some light, some thunderous, but they keep moving and transforming without any effort on your part. If this doesn’t work for you, imagine that you’re sitting in a cinema watching a film and, up on the screen, your thoughts are coming out of the mouths of different characters. You’re just sitting, watching, maybe eating popcorn or a hot dog. You might notice at some point that you’ve left your seat, joined the film and become part of the plot. As soon as you realize this has happened, without giving yourself a bad review, walk back to your seat, pick up the popcorn and watch again. Whether the film is hilarious or terrifying, just watch from your seat and notice whenever you’re up there on the screen. You don’t get a better score the fewer times you move to the screen and back; the point is to notice each time you do. If you do it a hundred times, pat yourself on the back and congratulate yourself for being aware that you did. As I said in Chapter 2, it’s actually a better mental exercise when you mind-wander and then bring your focus back, because each time you do it beefs up those mental abs. In the last few moments of the exercise, come back to simply breathing; each time you remember to breathe or sit back in your chair in the cinema, you’re automatically in the present. The breath is always there for you to bring you back to a sense of peace and presence.
Write your thoughts after each meditation in your diary each day.
Here are some questions to have in your mind.
· How did it feel when you shifted from listening to sounds to listening to your thoughts?
· Using the cloud or cinema image, what were your thoughts when your mind wandered? Are there any themes?
· How did you respond when you realized (if you did) that you had become part of the film and needed to return to your seat?
· Was the popcorn good?
Overview: Putting It All Together
This week, you are going to work on how to incorporate mindfulness into your real life. That’s the point of it (not to learn to be a log).
You can’t be present all the time, watching your feelings and thoughts, or you’d grind to a halt, maybe mid-walk or, even worse, mid-traffic. My hunch is that only yogis who live in caves or people with specific types of brain damage experience that state of being permanently present.
A Day in the Life of a Working Person
7 a.m. Alarm clock goes off. Try, try, try to set the clock ten minutes earlier so you might have time do a five- to ten-minute mindfulness session (choose any exercise from my six-week course) or, if there’s simply no time, just have your shower or brush your teeth with awareness. If you don’t have time to brush your teeth, see a doctor … and a dentist.
8 a.m. If you have time while you’re getting ready for work to throw some coffee, tea or even food into your mouth, maybe for two or three bites you can experience the temperature, flavour, size or taste of what you’re eating/ drinking, the flavour, size and taste? (Remember: even a few seconds makes a difference in your brain.)
8.30 a.m. Get in the car and drive (if you drive to work). At this point, don’t even think about focusing on your senses or coming into the present, because you’ll have an accident and I don’t want to be blamed. Most of the time we have to be on automatic pilot; this is one of those times.
However, if you’re taking a bus, train, taxi or horse, this is a good time to do some mindfulness practice. Do any of the following: feel your feet on the ground, feel your body on the seat, listen to sound, focus on your breath, watch yourself thinking and, if you’re getting jumpy because you’re going to be late, focus on the feeling of jumpiness.
9 a.m.–1 p.m. Any time during the morning, if you notice yourself getting a brain-clog or a red mist coming down, do a three- or even one-minute mindfulness exercise, at your desk, under your desk, in the elevator, in the loo … Try doing it twice a day – maybe once before lunch, and once after. If you close the lid of your laptop, turn off your phone or just walk away for those three minutes/ one minute, I promise, when you resume your work, you’ll be clearer, more creative, more energized and you’ll beat the competition as they burn out around you.
1 p.m. Lunchtime. Wherever you’re eating, taste the food while you’re chewing and swallowing it, if only for a few seconds; otherwise, it’s a waste of money and calories. If you have to eat lunch in a meeting, still make the effort to taste the food … no one else will notice and, at the same time, you’ll be clearing head space by sending your focus to the ‘eats’ department.
4 p.m. Usually, it’s towards the end of the day that most of us get tired, but that’s exactly when I start gunning my engine, wheels spinning, to get the job done. I’m not getting anywhere, though, because, mentally, I’ve run out of fuel, even though I’m still jamming my foot to the floor. It’s so sad, but it’s my syndrome, my addiction to adrenaline, which I pump up with ‘last minutism’. I drive myself to the edge of the cliff and hang there, exhausted. But while I’m dangling over the chasm by my fingernails, it would help to take a one- or three-minute mindfulness pause.
7 p.m. You’re now going to need a whole new set of gears for what’s called your home life. I’d suggest before you see your family you do a little mindfulness practice so you don’t bring any of the dross home from work. Maybe for a minute listen to sound; you don’t even need to switch on music, just listen to ambient noise to come back to your senses and out of your head. (And I don’t mean by getting loaded on the way home.) You’re now attempting to transform yourself from the work-mode you to the person who talks to people and listens to them.
8 p.m. and onwards. If you’ve been practising MBCT regularly, it will become easier to switch off from your working day in the company of your family and friends. If you notice that your mind is still at the office, overthinking, take your focus to noticing the people around you. You can put that amygdala away, you won’t be needing it now; there is no danger among friends and family … unless, of course, you’re Macbeth.
11 p.m. In bed, if you can try a three-minute practice, it might help you to fall asleep more quickly. Just lie there and allow your thoughts to have one last orgy: ruminate, worry, plan, fantasize, brood, let rip. After a minute, bring your focus back to your breath and, in the last minute, breathe into your body from your toes to your head. zzzzz
Throughout your day, there are specific times when mindfulness might come in handy.
At the Bus Stop
Your bus is late, you’re late, and now you’ve turned into the Alien, full fangs exposed, saliva dripping. Looking at your watch furiously won’t make the bus come any faster. If you’ve been practising mindfulness regularly, it might not be so difficult to become aware that you’ve lost your mind. I know: it’s horrifying to get a glimpse of the idiot you’re making of yourself, screaming like a crazy person to no effect – other than to be filmed by someone nearby who will upload the video on to YouTube.
Speaking in Public
If ever you are called upon to do some public speaking, here’s a tip. Now, I know this sounds weird, but go into the loo, lock the door and just sit there on the seat (lid up or down), focusing on the sensations you feel. If you start to think how weird the situation is, take your focus to the seat.
On your way to speak, send your focus to where your feet contact the ground. If you get nervous, as you’re speaking, you can also intermittently throw some focus to your feet, literally, to ground yourself.
Most mornings I wake up mentally clogged from the nocturnal orgy of imaginings left over from the night before. (Sometimes, at the end of my dreams, the credits run by – they’re usually Polish names.) If I don’t practise mindfulness for even ten minutes in the morning, I know they’ll stay in my head and infect the rest of my day. To me, practising every morning is exactly like using the loo, in that, if you don’t evacuate what’s in you, you’ll feel discomfort all day long. My theory is that dreams are the same: you need to have some kind of exit strategy for them, or they’ll just sink into your unconscious and eventually blow out of you. So each morning I patiently sit on my bed and allow the dreams into my consciousness and notice that, eventually, they lose their grip and their solidity. Here are a few examples of why my dreams need to be gently excavated.
A few nights ago, I dreamt that Alan Rickman had just stabbed me in the roof of my mouth at a delicatessen, for no reason. I then went into a Zara shop in India, asked for a needle and thread and sewed the wound together, my mouth wide open like a lion’s. I then tied the thread into a big bow. (The dream continues in this vein …)
I’ve left my car in a no-parking zone and, when I return, I notice it’s been completely dismantled; only the chassis is left. The guy (gangster) who tore it apart tells me he’ll put it together again if I pay him $5,000. I refuse, so he takes me to his leader, who looks like Idi Amin. I try to make Idi laugh by showing him how I can turn his porno photos into key chains. He laughs maniacally, and I think, ‘Sucker, I got him, I won’t have to pay the $5,000.’ As I’m leaving, a group of Vietnamese boy-soldiers marches by and Idi hacks off the head of one of them with a jousting stick and tells me that if I don’t pay the $5,000 that will happen to me. I decide to get the money. I jump into a white stretch limo and spend the night going from cashpoint to cashpoint collecting it; I decide I’ll pay him back in avocados. Jump cut: I’m working around the clock with Chinese workers, wrapping up thousands of avocados … Do you see now why, sometimes, I wake up feeling anxious?