A small X drawn on the back of my hand between my thumb and my index finger; that was the first Mindfulness technique that I ever put into practice. It was the first one that made sense and also the first one that worked. I will get to the X a little later on, but let me start at the beginning as I have been told that it is a good place to start.
Mindfulness seemed to find me when I needed it most. A few years ago I became a father for the first time. I was in a loving relationship. I did not work a particularly arduous or unfulfilling job at the time and generally felt on top of the world. Then a series of events came to pass that would shake that solid foundation and cause cracks to form across my facade. With the pressures of working a job that ultimately wasn’t either challenging or creative enough for me; coupled with the immense stresses of fatherhood, I was failing. My relationship took the worst of it, as arguments became more and more commonplace until there were more arguments than not. The struggle continued to have knock-on effects as my work suffered and threatened my ability to feed my growing family. It was all too much. Too much by far. I needed help but it was not easy to find. First I had to admit that my lot was too much for me to handle on my own. Stubborn as I am, that alone took some doing.
I found to my surprise that I was suffering from moderately severe depression. I could apparently not deal with the strength and weight of my own emotions. The doctor and I spoke at length about my condition and the counteractive measures that were available. There was talk of various types of therapy but ultimately the doctor prescribed me some anti-depressants and sent me on my way. I didn’t understand this choice; I now have to numb my emotions and feel nothing in order to stop my inability to deal with emotions. Confusing when I put it like that; am I right? It was as if I had trapped myself in a cage of my own making. The drugs didn’t take. They were not for me. Whether that was because I didn’t give them a chance to or not, is anyone’s guess. All I know is that they didn’t get me back to the centred and happy me that I had missed so badly for so long now. My attempts to struggle through it on my own had resulted in unhelpful thinking aplenty alongside other emotional and social bad habits. I was more and more residing in the background of my own life. I needed to break the cycle.
In the darkest moment and at my weakest yet, I found the answer to a question that I had not been asking. I was shown a light that I had not known to look for. Simon was a trainee therapist who was in his final years of study before qualifying and taking on clients of his own. He specialised in Behavioural Cognitive Therapy (known as CBT for short). I know this because a friend had arranged for me to meet Simon and have a brief informal chat about what I was going through to see if therapy might help; whether CBT or another type. We had barely begun speaking when Simon began to explain the very basics of CBT and touched on a word that I had heard thrown around by only the very most spiritual of my friends. The word itself can carry a stigma that is most unjust and inaccurate. I was sceptical the first time Simon mentioned the term Mindfulness. I thought of it, as many people might do, as in essence a spiritual practice that was akin to white or good magic and could be found in the same places that you would find dreamcatchers and the like. Oh how wrong I was.
Simon continued and told me that Mindfulness as a theoretical exercise has in fact been around as long as there has been a mind. There are of course various theories and indeed whole structured courses of Mindfulness practices that have been developed by different cultures for use in various ways. It is underlined as a huge part of the Buddhist belief and much of the symbolism attached comes from that link, however, Mindfulness is more than that. It is a philosophy. It can be a way of life. For me, it was a way out. I am not sure what the dictionary definition of Mindfulness is exactly, and sure I could look it up right now but I would prefer to show you. Alright, find a pen (a black marker works best), now make an L with your thumb and your index finger and right in the corner draw a small but bold X. This is what I was instructed to do at the end of our first talk, after an hour of telling him about my depression in graphic detail, I was drawing an X on the back of my hand. He told me then what I will say to you now. Draw the X on the back of your hand and forget about it, go about the remainder of your day. Every now and again you will catch sight of the X out of the corner of your eye. Whenever this happens; wherever you are I want you to stop and look around you. Look at where you are, what is happening in the nearby area. Note what you are thinking about at that moment or how you feel. Just stop and take it all in. This is Mindfulness.
The very first time that my eye caught sight of that X, I did exactly as I was told and that was when Mindfulness found me. I was transported directly out of the chaos that was my mind. If just for a moment I was free. Free to see the world as it actually was and not how all of my stresses etc. had made it look to me. It was a bright day, the breeze was cool and light and in the far distance, a flag danced gently on a rooftop. Here I was; in the moment. To think, I missed this stuff almost all day, every day for so long. And with just one Mindfulness technique (and a very basic one at that) I had been allowed to glimpse through the ever-thickening fog. This was the start of something great I remember thinking.
The X on the back of my hand was the first in a short list of basic exercises in Mindfulness that I was given by Simon. The main aim of all of these practices (an underpinning part of Mindfulness as a whole) was for me to allow myself to be present in the moment as so many of us can forget to be. It has been proven that changing the way that you react to a situation within that moment takes practice and Mindfulness is an effective way of training your mind to do this. Give yourself some time as you cannot force or rush Mindfulness. Let your judgments go. Attempt to let the situation happen, think about it objectively and then react with the correct weight attached. I let Mindfulness in and began to see results with immediate effect.
The way that my brain worked was changing and due to the fact that many of my issues had previously arisen from my inability to correctly deal with the unhelpful thoughts that I was regularly having; this meant that things became easier to see and indeed easier to deal with. It has been proven that regular practice of Mindfulness can light up parts of your brain that would usually lay dormant when actively not being mindful.
Meditation is one way that I would capitalise on these changes. With the use of certain breathing exercises and meditation techniques you can learn to grant yourself the space and time within your mind. Meditation does for the body what Mindfulness does for the mind. It can be as easy as sitting and feeling your breath leave and then re-enter your body. Focus on this simple pattern and while you are doing this, let go of your thoughts with the aim of clearing your mind until all that is left is the basic pattern of breathing in and then back out. Whenever you begin to stray from these thoughts just gently guide your mind back onto thoughts of your breathing. Like the basic Mindfulness techniques that I have mentioned, with steady and regular practice it will get easier and easier.
We honestly do not generally realise just how much pressure that we put on ourselves, or bodies and our minds. Just as you would take time to look after your body; Mindfulness is a workout for the mind and soul.