A person who has a desire to run a marathon but who has little experience of running, might begin by pacing themselves with short runs for a time until their body (and mind) is accustomed to the exercise and ready to take on more. Gradually, the runner is mentally confident and physically fit to take part in a half-marathon. The full marathon is still some months off, so lots of time yet.
With the success of the half-marathon under his/her belt, the runner can really see the difference the training has made and may feel he/she has reached a stage where she might, perhaps, drop the morning run and just keep the afternoon and evening practices going to maintain the same level of fitness.
Overtime, other commitments come in and one or two afternoon practices are dropped in place of these commitments. Before they know it, the full marathon is upon them and, in a frenzy, the runner tries to get back to their practices and level of physical and mental fitness but the stress of the prospect of not being prepared, hampers their training and the feeling of overwhelm means they pull out of what had once been their goal. ‘I can’t do it’ ‘I’m not ready’ ‘All that training was a waste of time’ ‘………..
We can retell the story from the moment of having run the half-marathon. Now the runner understands that the training practices have been instrumental in enabling them to reach a physical and mental state that not only feels great, but also enables them to achieve in other areas of life where confidence and resilience are key factors. Although effort is required, particularly in the morning, where staying in bed is so tempting, the feeling of being able to choose to achieve, outweighs the initial reluctance. There is an awareness about the sensation of reluctance and the runner reminds him/herself of the rewards so that the mind/body makes the choice that serves it best at this moment in time. Training practices become a way of life to sustain the runner’s wellbeing and ability to follow their goal of running marathons.
The journey into mindfulness meditation may be transposed onto the above analogy: We begin tentatively with little or no experience of how the mind works. We practice following the breath and are told that breathing deeply will activate the parasympathetic nervous system through the vagus nerve. We are pleased we now have scientific evidence that this is the case and are also heartened by the idea that the more we practice, the more vagal tone we have, and the easier it is for the body to return to a relaxed state after a stressful situation.
At first we follow the breath dutifully but the results are not as immediate as physical training and we may feel we are ‘not doing it right’ and even try too hard to ‘sit through’ rather than ‘practice with’ a guided 3-minute breathing space. We start wondering how something as mundane as ‘following the breath’ can bring about the changes we wish to see in our lives. Unlike running or any other physical activity, this sitting still can bring up all sorts of unpleasant thoughts and memories. Most of it will be stuff we’ve been pushing away or refusing to allow entrance into consciousness, for quite some time. It almost seems like things are getting worse rather than better as we become more aware of our thoughts and feelings. However, staying present with whatever arises while keeping in the parasympathetic, can allow a cleansing and balancing of the nervous system which may be likened to how those aching runner muscles feel after a long soak in a hot bath…
We adopt other short practices such as finger-breathing, box breathing, alternate nostril breathing etc and begin to notice a sense of calm. We learn that staying in the Relax Response through basic breathing practices releases serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin- all hormones of wellness and we are now making time to use these tools and strategies. We set aside time in the morning to begin our day mindfully and plan to do a practice here and there throughout the day. Small and subtle changes such as our responses to situations encourage us to continue with the practices. Soon this slightly calmer state becomes our ‘norm’ and we feel that as long as we ‘do’ a practice here and a practice there, we are on our way to nirvana.
Then, just as the runner in the above story, we find we wake up late one day and haven’t got 3 minutes to spare for the breathing space. The mind starts to rationalise that time is precious and that with all there is to be done throughout the day, taking a minute here and two minutes there to practice breathwork, is simply not realistic.
Little by little we get drawn into the mind stream of rumination and slip into the ever so subtle stress mode and before we know it, we’ve gone so far down stream that feelings of overwhelm may cause us to think ‘ well that mindfulness stuff didn’t work!’ ‘ I was better off before I learned that stuff’ ‘It might work for a while but it’s definitely not long-term and, anyhow, how is staying in the present going to help me gets things done?!!!’
As with the story of the marathon runner, we can trace back to where ‘small and subtle changes encourage us to continue with the practices.’ It is at this point that we begin to realise that being mindful is not just about engaging in the practices, helpful as they are. Rather it is about becoming mindful in every area of our life. To be mindful is to be aware- aware of what we’re doing when we are doing it, aware of the thought processes and aware of the choices we are making on a daily, if not momentarily, basis.
If we start our day with intention and recognise when old habit patterns/ thoughts begin to invade us, we learn to notice, acknowledge and go back to the breath to activate new neural pathways. Overtime the old habitual pathways weaken. Science shows that structural changes in the regulatory areas of the brain take place after eight weeks of mindfulness practice. We are more able to focus awareness, and this can be practiced while undertaking such daily mundane tasks as getting dressed, washing dishes, cleaning teeth, vacuuming etc. Instead of the body performing an activity and the mind wandering off into regrets of past actions or concerns about future ones, we stay present- mind in the body cleaning the teeth, washing the dishes etc. All the while we are training the mind to stay present and strengthening the muscle of attention.
Overtime the foggy mind, the inhibited memory and other symptoms of the over-secretion of stress hormones, will begin to clear. Being fully present is now understood – it is not zoning out or being so relaxed that one cannot begin to think of future projects or deadlines. Rather it is exactly what we need to accomplish those tasks as we keep our focus, our attention, our thoughts and feelings all fixed on what needs to be done. The pre-frontal cortex that was inhibited in the stress state, suddenly comes back on-line and we are more able to see new possibilities and opportunities. We become more creative and more able to solve problems too.
We begin to understand mindfulness in an experiential sense rather than an intellectual one. Not only are we more able to focus our awareness, regulate our attention and balance our emotional response but we also build resilience so that, when faced with challenging situations and people, we are able to respond in a way that is less detrimental to our wellbeing and the situation or other person, as well as returning to a relaxed state in a shorter time.
The practices are now integrated into our daily routine as habit and we see that whatever time is spent on ‘going within’ pays off dividends. Indeed, an additional benefit is that regular meditation slows the aging process.! That’s definitely a plus in my book 🙂
To conclude- Mindfulness is no longer just a series of lessons or techniques, but more of a way of life – a way of living life to the full.