How to Stick to a Daily Mindfulness Practice
Despite the seeming simplicity of a mindfulness practice, it can be difficult to carve out the time for yourself
Mindfulness coach Nicky Ferry offers some meditation tips
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I began my journey into meditation and mindfulness when I met an order of Buddhist monks on a quest to deal with my anxiety. After living and working in their monastery and studying their teachings for a few months, my practise evolved. I am sharing what I have learnt through very many years of training, practising and working with coaching, body psychotherapy and embodied, non-dual spiritual teachers.
Research into mindfulness
Western studies have shown that a meditation practice of just 30 minutes a day can literally change the shape of your brain – for the better. It has been proven that meditative practice improves brain functioning and is also a force for good in the gut too.
A Harvard University study showed that creating a state of deep relaxation changes the physical and emotional responses to stress and is a huge help in the treatment of gut disorders such as IBS.
Reasons to start meditating include:
- Enhanced immunity
- Decreased cellular inflammation and pain
- Decreased depression and anxiety
- Increased sense of connection to self and others
- Improved emotional regulation
- Increased ability to focus and multitask
- Heightened creativity
- Greater sense of compassion
Things that can get in the way
The most difficult thing about starting a practise is the sheer simplicity of the task. The intention is to be present, open and kind, which may sound straightforward but because we have been so extensively conditioned to think, it can be challenging.
It is not actually thinking that is the real issue, but more the believing in what we are thinking and getting caught up in streams or patterns of thought. This can then be compounded with the inner critic, the part of us that can become judgemental and critical – about anything, even in relation to meditation – ‘Oh I’m not doing it right’, or ‘I need to try harder, I’m so lazy’ or whatever your brand of inner harshness is. So it is very helpful to nurture a sense of kindness to yourself. You are in fact developing a new relationship with yourself; I like to think of it as becoming your own best friend or most tender lover.
How to start with mindfulness
If you are new to meditation, start small. Even a 15-minute practice (which you can extend), ideally at the beginning and end of every day, of sitting quietly, dropping inside your self and being kind with whatever is present or arises will have a noticeable impact.
Sit in a chair, cross-legged on the floor, recline or even lie down somewhere you know you won’t be disturbed – phones and devices off, door shut – and close your eyes or soften your gaze.
Turn your awareness inside and to start, just breathe. Breathing in long, slow breaths activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which is in charge of rest, recuperation and healing. Usually this will start to calm your mind if you have had a busy day or you are triggered in any way.
It can help to focus on the sensation of the breath coming in and out of the body, you can think of the breath itself as an act of love – you are taking in oxygen that is nourishing and energising your body, and letting go of what the body doesn’t need.
Developing kindness and allowance
Gently scan your inner landscape, suspend any critique or analysis if you can and notice what is present, just notice. If your mind is very busy, take an imaginary step back from thinking, as if you are disengaging from an activity – which you are.
As you step back, simply gaze at your mind, and do so kindly, as if you are watching a child play. Be soft with your mind, thank it for all that it does for you and invite it to rest. It is important to stay soft and allowing; this isn’t about effort and trying to be or feel a certain way. The idea is to cultivate a sense of ‘being with’ in a respectful way. All our thoughts, emotions and energies positively respond to being respected and allowed to be present as they are. This is where patience is needed, especially if you have difficult feelings or thoughts going on.
We have been taught that some thoughts and feelings are positive and some are negative. Yet if we actually sit compassionately with how we are, even if it is the most negative of states, then we will naturally transform. The body and mind actually know how to rebalance themselves and reside in sense of wellbeing – we just need to create the right conditions for this to happen. This process is about restoring ourselves to our most natural, present and open state – we are not learning something new, in effect we are mostly un-learning conditioning and mental interference.
Adopt the same loving attitude towards any emotional state or physical discomfort that might be present within you; welcoming them into your inner world with kindness. Be like the most generous, openhearted host or hostess with all your emotions, thoughts, pain or sensations like guests arriving at your home. They have come because they need and want your love so that they can come to rest and integrate within you.
As your inner state slows down and comes to rest, allow yourself to be spacious. Notice and enjoy the space, let it expand. We are generally conditioned to notice ‘things’, but in meditation we learn to notice the space. The vast spaciousness within you is actually your true nature.
Dialoguing with your body
Simply being with your self with kindness is very powerful and can often be enough to take you into peace. But sometimes it isn’t, especially if what is stirred up inside you is very strong or deep-rooted. What can really help is coming into a more intimate relationship with whatever is going on.
Neuroscience and studies into the gut microbiome have proven that our bodies are hugely intelligent. We tend to think intelligence resides in our head and that it is mostly learnt, but we have vast wisdom that lives in our body and in our natural presence.
There are some very simple questions you can drop into yourself as you sit quietly and kindly that can be potent ways to open up stuck or persistent states. For example, let’s say you are feeling very anxious, which many of us are through this pandemic. Allow the anxiety, be soft around and with it, don’t try to change it. A teacher once told me, ‘You need to learn to be comfortable with the uncomfortable.’ No rush, but after a while, drop in the question ‘What do you need?’ or better still find a buddy to share this process with, sit together (and it can be over the phone or Zoom) and take it in turns.
Let the question land in your body, don’t take it into your mind, it isn’t about figuring it out. See what arises. Allow your body to speak with you, develop inner ears to listen. If you have experience with children, you will know how really listening to a child with kindness and patience usually works like magic. Other helpful questions can be: ‘How can I best love (or support) you right now?’ Follow your intuition.
Most people find that by regularly practising meditation, natural shifts occur that include increased awareness, compassion and insight and they tend to find that their nervous system calms down. This can be enhanced by joining with others – either in a group meditation, in a one-to-one session or by getting your self a mediation buddy. We are stronger together and by sitting with the same intention we increase the energy and impact of the process.
It is worth noting that if you are very stirred up, stuck or stressed that professional help can be immensely valuable. It is also important not to use meditation or blissful states of being to escape from your issues, rather to use the process to be with and explore what is presenting itself to you.
Creating space in your life
There are small things that can have a big impact as we move through our day-to-day life, such as giving ourselves more time and space. Allow your self to slow down and, as in mediation, let there be more space amidst and between activities. A very simple way to connect to this is to notice the space around and especially behind your body. This counteracts the pull upwards to the thinking mind and forwards into action. It activates the right brain, which is the spatial, creative and more open part of our being. In a world that generally respects and encourages thought, rationality and achievement (the left brain), it is very healthy to balance this with activities that support the right brain.
Avoiding food and drinks that are very stimulating can also help you to stay sensitive and more attuned to your self, as well as obviously nourishing things like connecting with nature, moving your body and not overdoing screen time. Keep listening to messages from your body and being, they can be subtle so you do need to be willing to really listen.
Above all, I hope you enjoy the immense pleasure, peace, love and inspiration that you can discover within your own being through a committed mindful practice.
Nicky Ferry is a mindful coach and runs weekly guided mediations over Zoom, visit: www.nickyferry.com