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During the past weeks, as a way of getting our heads around the impact the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic has had on our lives, I offered an introduction to mindfulness concepts and practices. I referred to formal and informal mindfulness practices and today it is my intention to foreground a few of the formal practices. The motivation for this foregrounding is informed by my firm belief that the same ‘effort’ we put into training our bodies ought to be put into training our minds, and very few of us ever do this. Mindfulness practice is an excellent way to train the mind, it reduces stress and aids us in participating actively in the maintenance of our own health and vitality. Regular mindfulness practice can increase skilful action and reduce reactivity while bringing greater clarity, focus and ease to dealing with any kinds of challenges.

Formal mindfulness practices vary and include amongst others mindful meditation, body scan; mindful movement; and mindful eating – these are the meditative practices I will highlight with accompanying links.

Mindful meditation can be described as a practice in which people learn to pay attention, moment by moment, intentionally, with an attitude of open, affable curiosity.

The founder of the Mindfulness Stress Based Reduction (MBSR) programme, Jon Kabat-Zinn, claims that mindful meditation allows us to tap into our capacity to be in touch with our experience and be awake and aware with no agenda other than to be awake and aware’. He stresses that meditation is not about clearing the mind, but about noticing the mind’s patterns and how certain patterns can lead to intensifying emotions as well as how some actions can lead to positive outcomes in life.

Specifically, Mindfulness meditation needs no preparation and does not involve the use of any props, candles or mantras, it requires a quiet place to sit or lie, a few minutes of our time and an open, non-judgemental mind.

Practicing mindful meditation has many benefits – through this formal practice we learn to become more kind, compassionate, gentle, patient and non-judgemental with ourselves. We also learn to give ourselves the time and space to make informed and wise choices and to find solutions to problems. Other benefits include reduced stress, reduced pain or discomfort, improved sleep, improved insight and improved performance. Try this mindfulness meditation of body and breath:

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The body scan is designed to systematically, region by region, cultivate awareness of the body. The body scan is best practiced lying down on one’s back in a place where one feels warm and comfortable and will be undisturbed. This is useful practice to explore for numerous reasons, the first is that the body often detects thoughts before we consciously register them, it then reacts as though the thoughts are real irrespective of whether they are or not. The second reason the body scan is a useful practice is because it affords us the opportunity to deepen our ability to see how reactive our minds really are and the third reason is that the body can act as an emotional sensor giving us early warning signs of stress, unhappiness and apprehension before they even arise. The body feeds back emotional information to the brain which often worsens the stress, fears and worries we already have. If we are able to decipher the messages from the body by paying detailed attention and also shifting our attention, we may notice the parts of the body that are the source of the distress signals.

The body scan is a wonderful way of integrating the mind and the body and also of developing our ability to pay attention, shift attention and sustain attention. Additionally, in this practice we come to notice how our mind creates tension in the body and vice versa. Being able to notice our minds’ reactivity is useful given that we spend so much time in our heads planning, remembering, analysing, judging, comparing etc. that it is easy to compromise our own physical and mental well-being.  Try this body scan meditation:

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Mindful movement is likened to gentle hatha yoga with an emphasis on mindful awareness of the body in motion and in stillness. Mindful movement not only helps to release stress in the body, it also teaches us a wonderful appreciation of and respect for our bodies. This practice can feel very odd, especially for athletes who are used to pushing themselves beyond their limits. Unlike the movement you are used to, the purpose here is to focus on the physical sensation of the movement and how we relate to the sensations and to also notice our inclination to want to strive and push ourselves –  so this practice is not about striving but simply about cultivating awareness of our physical sensations. It is a wonderful way of reconnecting with our bodies in a kind, compassionate, gentle and non-judgemental way. Try this mindful movement meditation:

Mindful eating is a practice in which we bring awareness moment by moment to what we are doing when we are eating. It is a lovely ‘exercise’ which helps to give us a sense of knowing what we are doing when we are doing it.  Mark Williams the founder of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) suggests trying mindful eating by actively attending to eating a piece of chocolate – he calls it the chocolate meditation.   Actively attending in this instance, incorporates opening the wrapper, taking in the aroma, breaking off a piece, looking at the chocolate from all angles, touching it, putting it in your mouth, noticing what happens in your mouth and with the chocolate, your tendency to bite, suck etc., noticing your thoughts about the chocolate or what you are doing, noticing the swallowing and the sensation of having eaten the chocolate and your thoughts about that.

The mindful eating meditation practice is a powerful way of making us aware of unhelpful and sometimes destructive impulses and behaviours when it comes to food. For some of us food can provide emotional comfort especially when the going gets tough – we often hear people talking about comfort eating and comfort food. The mindful eating meditation practice affords us the opportunity to be in touch with our food and our relationship to food. We can be more mindful of what we consume, why, how, where and when. Try the chocolate meditation (of course you will need chocolate for this one):

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The intention of these formal Mindfulness practices is for us to actively take time out of our day to check in on ourselves, to turn off our surroundings and focus inwards so that we can reflect on our own lives. Practicing mindfulness formally is not difficult or out of our reach because we all have the ability to be mindful. In my experience, for mindfulness to be fully appreciated, understood and of value in our lives, it must be experienced and not just spoken or read about – so go ahead and give some of the practices a try.

Lastly, in the words of Jon Kabat-Zinn: ‘If you want to influence the future, own the present’.

Be bold, be brave and be curious.