I didn’t start off as a sceptic. I used to be first in the queue for anything that promised to change my life, and there have been a lot of books making a lot of promises. There was the 365 day stress-less challenge*, the 52 weeks of positive affirmations*, the 10 steps to instant confidence*, you name it, I’ve tried it. And when they didn’t work, I’d feel even more of a failure, and then buy the next book with a cover full of promises…
A decade later and a lot more anxious (but with a bulging bookcase) I have become a bit sceptical of the latest craze. I see a book with a title like “Think happy, be happy”* and yes, I pick it up (or click on it), I look at the reviews on Amazon, and I put it back down again. I figure that I won’t be happier, just £7.99 worse off, which just rubs salt in the wound. If it was that easy, I’d have succeeded years ago, wouldn’t I?
I had heard of mindfulness, a friend’s counsellor had recommended it to help with depression. She described it as noticing the little things that we usually walk straight past, and so I had tried this on my daily trudge to work. I noticed a Siamese cat watching me from an upstairs window, flowers growing in the gaps between concrete slabs, the way the sun caught the chimney posts in the morning. It gave me a little lift, but like most things, it wore off. Or, more accurately, I forgot to keep doing it, and so it wore off. (Now I realise that observing our surroundings is just a small part of mindfulness).
I couldn’t help but be intrigued by this book that arrived on my doorstep, by the fact that it was written by a Buddhist monk (which made his promises sound a lot more trustworthy than most) and by the heartfelt recommendation from a school friend I hadn’t seen in years. I’ll admit, I was too drained to read it there and then, but I looked up the author and found his TED talk, “The habits of happiness“, and I was captivated. I spent all afternoon watching talks, lectures and classes on mindfulness, wanting to know more. The video below stands out as a particular favourite from that afternoon because it explains mindfulness so well, both the practice of mindfulness and the science behind it (and the fact that the talk is given by the University of California helps me to believe that it isn’t another craze!). It is long, but it is well worth the watch:
And that was it, I was hooked, in no small part because of the scientific evidence that showed that mindfulness physically changes your brain. Carla Shatz coined the phrase “cells that fire together wire together” (Carla Shatz), or to give it its scientific name, synaptic plasticity. So here was medical proof that I could actually reprogramme my brain to be more positive. Wow. My inner sceptic was suddenly feeling a lot less sceptical. (NB the mindfulness that I practice has its roots based on Buddhist principles and meditations, but minus the religion. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a medical professor, fused Buddhist practices with Western psychology and brought us a non-religious version of mindfulness).
I wanted to get started as soon as possible, so I found a book that came with a CD: Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world. It’s written as an 8 week course, a course that I could do at home, at my own pace. I even checked out the author’s voice to make sure I found it relaxing. Perfect.
Mindfulness doesn’t include:
- Sitting cross legged (unless you want to)
- Chanting (I’d be too self-conscious!)
- Attending a class (unless you want to)
- Trying to stop all the thoughts that pop into your head (impossible, surely?)
- A large commitment of time (if you can fit in 3 minutes a day, you’ll be fine)
- A large commitment of money (you can borrow a book from the library)
Mindfulness does include:
- Learning to accept (not change) whatever emotions you are feeling
- Appreciating what you already have
- Noticing your thoughts, not trying to stop them or change them
- Exercises that only take a few minutes
- Exercises you can do almost anywhere (I do mine on the bus)
- And yes, it really does re-wire your brain!
My next post will give an outline of the 8 week course, and what I gained from it. I warn you, I am bowled over by this book, it really has changed how I view things, or more accurately, how I think. And trust me, I overthink! (And no, I’m not on commission).
*The small print – titles marked with an asterisk are titles I have made up to illustrate a point. They are not a reflection on any real books that might have these names!