One of my goals for this year is to incorporate more mindfulness into my everyday life.
Unless you’ve been held captive in a cave in darkest Africa by one-eyed multiple-tentacled aliens, you will have heard the term 'mindfulness' bandied about with reckless abandon, in the company of other words like meditation, karma, holistic and green smoothies.
What is Mindfulness?
But in case you’ve been reluctant to ask what it means because you don’t want to be thought of as uncool, mindfulness is about focussing your attention on the present moment.
Not only being aware of your surroundings – really aware, with all your senses – but also your thoughts and emotions, without judgment.
And I have found mindfulness especially valuable for my writing, as I’ll explain below.
Mindfulness is a simple concept, but difficult to put into consistent practice.
As Jon Kabat-Zinn points out in his book Wherever You Go There You Are (which I highly recommend), most of us spend our days in a fog of semi or complete unawareness.
Our minds are always racing; if we’re not thinking about events of the past – reminiscing, replaying scenes that have annoyed or frustrated us or thinking about how we could have done things differently.
We’re projecting ahead, ticking off a mental list of things to do, wondering or hoping how certain events will play out, our fears and anxieties about the future always at the forefront of our minds.
Wrong Way Ahead
I am particularly prone to the latter, constantly running through my mind what I have to do for the day and the week ahead. Y
ou know the feeling when you’re driving on automatic pilot and you arrive somewhere and you don’t remember the journey?
Or you take a wrong turn because you’re not concentrating, or your automatic pilot mind thinks you’re going somewhere else. (That happens to me a lot).
Now is all you have
The disadvantage of this is you're not able to take in and appreciate the present moment, so your life rushes by before you’re even aware of it.
You can’t change the past or predict the future, so there’s no point in dwelling in either. Easier said than done. But awareness is the first step.
When you’re aware of your mind wandering, you can bring it, gently and without judgment, back to the present.
For me, this is a double-edged sword. Some of my best ideas for my novels have come to me when I’m not ‘in the moment,’ such as in the shower or washing the dishes. My mind is somewhere else completely, and then the idea just pops up.
But ideas are always bubbling away in the subconscious mind of an author, so I’m hoping now that I’m making an effort to stay in the present, those ideas will still make their presence felt in some way or another.
Being in the moment involves engaging all your senses. Treating your surroundings as if you’re experiencing them for the first time – taking in the scent of the flowers in your garden, the feel of the warm washing up water on your hands, the cacophony of the crows on the front porch, the timeless majesty of the ancient fig trees in the park, the intense sweetness of chocolate on your tongue.
Not only has this meant that the enjoyment factor of my daily life has increased tenfold, it is also an excellent practice for my writing.
My heightened awareness of my senses and my environment has brought a fresher and more vivid approach to my writing, especially as I have always found description challenging.
Incorporating a variety of senses when writing scenes is a valuable way of transporting the reader into your story.
Control Your Thoughts And Emotions
The other aspect of mindfulness is being aware of your thoughts and emotions as you are experiencing them, without judging if they are positive or negative.
Over time you develop the capacity to mentally step outside yourself and observe your thoughts and feelings without getting caught up in them, which means you then have more control over them.
Instead of reacting spontaneously to things that happen to you or are said to you, you’re able to pause and make a conscious decision on how you will respond.
In my breast cancer memoir Making The Breast Of It – Breast Cancer Stories of Humour and Joy, I give an example of how mindfulness has helped me cope with my anxiety about my breast cancer returning.
‘When I think about my cancer coming back and feel that constriction of anxiety in my chest, I say to myself, “I am experiencing fear of my cancer returning. This is not serving any useful purpose and I don’t want to be fearful, so I will now replace that thought with another positive thought.”’
Mindfulness Helps Creativity
As well as being useful in all sorts of personal situations, I’ve found mindfulness has helped me deal with creative challenges such as procrastination, writers block, comparisonitis (comparing myself to more successful writers, a common affliction of authors, except perhaps JK Rowling) and lack of energy and motivation.
Even just acknowledging to myself how I’m feeling – ‘I don’t feel like writing at all today. I’m feeling tired and lethargic and I have a strong urge to put it off until tomorrow – ‘can often be enough to motivate me to sit down and actually do it.
Do you practise mindfulness and if so, have you found it useful? I’d love you to join in the conversation in the comments box below.