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How are you this week? For most, if not all of us at the moment, life is a struggle. Once Christmas and the New Year celebrations are over, when the stark reality of January and February hits, it’s usually a long old slog to get to the spring.
But this year is unlike any other in recent history. With Covid-19 still dominating our lives, that slog feels a whole lot harder. Here we are, still in February, mourning the disappearance of the snow (in the Southern half of the UK at least) wondering what on earth it’s* all about.
(*it all, life, everything.)
Lockdown, separation from loved ones, loneliness, working from home, homeschooling and pretty much nothing working as it was, is all taking its toll.
If you feel like you’re barely making it through each day, you’re not alone. Venture out for your daily health walk or commute, and you’ll probably notice that glum look that’s ever present on people’s faces at the moment.
Everyone I speak to is feeling the same - a general feeling of nothingness. If I think back to the first lockdown last spring, things felt different. We had hope that all the sacrifice would be worth it and that change was afoot. We’d all emerge from lockdown with a renewed vigour for the “new normal” and #bekind was still fresh in our minds and determinations.
Now, deep in the midst of national and wintery Lockdown 3.0, lethargy is setting in. Stress, worry, anxiety, sleeplessness and fear are the order of the day, and we’re all just doing what we can to get through each day. Whilst being kind, supporting small and local businesses and looking out for our neighbours are all still high on our priority lists, perhaps self preservation is higher.
And who can blame us? Juggling all that we have to do in a normal world is tough enough. Add in the effects of a year long (and counting) global pandemic, and we can find ourselves in a muddle.
Which is why this week we’ve been thinking about ways to try to take back some control of our minds and de-stress a little. That then made us think about meditation and mindfulness. Can they really work to help calm the mind and make us more present?
Is there a difference between meditation and mindfulness?
Meditation and mindfulness are different things essentially, but they do go hand in hand. Mindfulness is the practice of being mindful. Being mindful means being aware of the here and now, and being in the present. It can be practised at any time and we can apply it to whatever we’re doing.
Meditation tends to be practiced at a set time, taking time out of our day to sit and meditate, but it’s to be done mindfully - and that’s where the similarities are.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness encourages us to pause and take a moment to notice what’s going on around us, or in our minds, at that moment. It allows us to pay attention to the sights, sounds, smells and goings on.
You can be mindful at any moment. In fact, try it now. Stop, close your eyes, take a deep breath in and listen. What can you hear? Birdsong? The gentle hum of the fridge or the boiler? The kids playing (or bickering)? Traffic sounds? Chit chat?
Whatever you can hear, you’re being mindful of it. Now turn your attention inwards. Can you hear your breath? Your heartbeat? Your stomach gurgling to remind you it's nearly lunchtime? Again, whatever you hear, you’re being mindful and you’re taking a moment to pause and to breathe. Whatever you’re doing, you’re stopping to consider it - to be mindful of it.
Now think about what you’re thinking about. Sounds odd, I know. But if we regularly take the time to think about our thoughts, then we could go some way to making sense of them. Are you always thinking about the same thing? Does it make your heart race and your breathing speed up? If so, it could be making you stressed. So is there anything you can change? Could being mindful help? What about meditation?
What is meditation?
Meditation is typically what we might have seen images of - people sitting cross legged with their eyes closed in peaceful solitude against a backdrop of mountains.
We might have the clichéd view that meditating is for Buddhist monks or ‘hippies’ but this isn’t necessarily true. Whilst meditating has its origins in ancient Indian Hindu and Buddhist cultures (as well as Chinese Taoist cultures) but there are many different forms of meditation.
Sure, sitting on a colorful cushion with your hands on your knees is one type. But as well as this type of seated meditation, we can practise standing, visualisation and guided forms of meditation. Walking and yoga practices can also be seen as a form of mediation.
Essentially, meditation is a practice that can help to encourage a “heightened state of awareness and focussed attention”.
What are the benefits of meditation?
Stress releases stress hormones such as cortisol and it can have many short and long term effects on our whole body health. Headaches, and increased risk of heart attacks, fertility problems and a compromised immune system are all connected to stress.
Our skin can react to stress too, since cortisol can lead to inflammation which can lead to impaired wound healing, ageing, skin conditions such as dermatitis and generally irritated, stressed out skin.
Emotionally, stress will weave it’s merry way through us too. Stress can lead to insomnia, fatigue, anxiety, mood swings, feeling blue, depression and a loss of interest in the things we used to enjoy. It can also cause us to make unhealthy life choices which themselves have an unhealthy knock on effect. It may also cause us to make impulsive choices such as over eating, drinking too much coffee or alcohol or spending too much.
So taking steps to combat stress will help both our physical and our mental health. Practicing meditation is one way of helping to reduce stress.
How to practice the perfect meditation
OK, so I tricked you a little bit with the title of this section. Because really, there is no ‘perfection’ needed when it comes to meditation. The important thing to remember is that meditation takes practice, just like anything else.
Remove from your mind that meditation or practicing mindfulness has to be done sitting completely still, cross legged on a cushion. Although this seating position is really good for meditating, you can sit on the floor or on the sofa or on your bed, as long as you’re sitting upright with a straight back.
Tie dyed trousers and incense sticks are optional but essentially, comfy clothes are good, and if you like the smell of Nag Champa (the most common incense - or ‘joss stick’ - smell) then go for it. I do.
Also forget the notion that to be beneficial, you have to completely empty your mind of all thoughts during a meditation or mindfulness practice. It’s almost impossible to quieten our minds to stop them thinking of anything. Any longer than a few seconds, and things will start to flood in again.
The point of meditating is to learn to recognise these thoughts and let them flow on through. Sort of like lifting a blockage of sticks holding back a stream, to allow the water to trickle on its way, rather than making it stop.
Practice will help you to manage your thoughts, but no one is going to be able to switch off on their first (or 100th go) and completely still their mind. A devotee who’s practised for years might reach this nirvana, but let’s not run before we can walk.
Listening to guided meditations definitely helps to remind us to focus on our breath and to let thoughts and feelings flow on through. So here’s three apps that we recommended to help you meditate and become more mindful and less stressed.
Insight Timer has the “largest free library of guided meditations and music tracks on earth”, with over 80,000 at your fingertips for free. The owners are proud to say that “more time is spent on Insight Timer than all other meditation apps combined”.
Which is really surprising because I’m a fan of these apps, and I’ve never come across Insight Timer! (I have Calm and Headspace, both of which I talk about below.) Having just downloaded it though, I can instantly see the attraction. With live guided meditations and events and sessions with celebrities and influencers such as Russell Brand and Elizabeth Gilbert, this app promises to “connect us with the world’s best teachers, live, every hour of the day, for free”. It also broadcasts yoga classes, allows you to play deep sleep therapy tracks and schedule live events. So join me in discovering this super meditation app!
I’ve had the Calm app on my phone for some time now, and I love it. I use the free version and it prompts me to take the time to be mindful at various points throughout the day. The 21 Days of Calm with Tamara Levitt helps you explore different types of practices, and how to bring mindfulness into our everyday lives.Many of the sleep meditations and bedtime stories (yep, bedtime stories!) are included in the paid for premium account, but there’s enough on the free level to help you make meditative practices part of your everyday life.
Another one of my favourite meditation apps is Headspace. This app promises to help make you “less stressed, more resilient and happier with just a few minutes of practice a day”. Broken down into the basics of mindful meditation, Headspace offers a lot for your free membership.There’s also single guided meditations that help with mindful eating, walking, exercising and traveling, with a really good SOS section for when you need some immediate calm. The section for kids (untested by me) also looks really good, especially if your little ones are struggling with their new way of home learning.
Adding meditation to your life
Perhaps now more than ever we need a little extra help with de-stressing and living a less anxious life. These apps could be the help you need to begin a new life of calmness, helping you to weather the Covid storm and everything else that brings. Good luck!