Look After Your Mind – Mindful or Mind Full?
Try this experiment: sit quietly where you won’t be disturbed. Gaze at an everyday object for a minute; a cup, a spoon, a book. Then, close your eyes and attempt to visualise that object for another minute.
The chances are that your thoughts will wander and you’ll end up thinking of all sorts of things. One thought acting as a stepping stone to another, to another, as the mind rambles away on a train of thought that has taken you away from the task in hand. You may ‘bring yourself back’ to visualising the object, only to have your thoughts drift again moments later.
This tendency has been called the ‘monkey mind’, forever busy and often unfocussed. Linked to this kind of thinking is the further tendency to get lost in memories or weave elaborate scenarios of what might happen in the future.
Of course it’s fine to enjoy pleasant memories and make plans. However, it can be less mentally healthy if, as the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley said, “We look before and after and pine for what is not”. In other words, to harbour regrets for what might have been and imagine future problems that might never happen.
You’ve probably heard of the practice of mindfulness. Its popularity has burgeoned in recent decades. At its most basic it’s the evolving ability to bring the mind into focus now. To be fully present in the moment. As thoughts come and go, a mindful person doesn’t try to suppress them, but simply acknowledges without judgement that that’s what the mind is doing now.
One of the most basic activities for developing mindfulness is to concentrate on the breath. To become aware of the breath as it happens, noticing the coolness of the air as it draws in through the nose. The way the stomach expands at the start of the in-breath; the way the chest expands as the full inhalation occurs; the way the warmed air flows out of the nose as you exhale. Breathing to a count – often six to inhale, six to hold, six to exhale – develops present moment awareness as well as creating a minute or two of deep relaxation.
The ability to become more mindful forms the roots of a branching tree. Mindfulness can make us less judgemental, more patient and tolerant. IT can also make us less distracted, more accepting and more able to let go of unpleasant thoughts. There are further health benefits, explored in detail in ‘Mindfulness: finding peace in a frantic world’ by Mark Williams and Danny Penman. And also in the pioneering work of Jon Kabat Zinn.