Testing Out Mindfulness

Mindfulness is in. What began as a form of Buddhist meditation has now been picked up by the mainstream, with even the NHS recommending it as a treatment for mental health conditions. It seems like everyone and their gran is preaching the benefits of switching off and finding your inner peace. So qmunicate challenged 5 of our contributors to take a break from their stressful lives of lectures, essays and making the best magazine in Glasgow. Here they report back on the challenges and benefits of the latest craze in mental wellbeing.

A dictionary definition of mindfulness states that it is ‘a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment’. It’s ironic then that my experience of practicing mindfulness has been very unfocused, and very patchy. Not only did it take me an embarrassing amount of days to finally get around to downloading a mindfulness app, let alone actually beginning the exercises, but at one point I genuinely forgot that I was supposed to be undertaking this experiment. Clearly I’m just the sort of disorganised, hectic person that mindfulness could really benefit.

I downloaded the ‘Mindfulness Lite’ app, a free and comparatively sparse app that wills the user to focus on breathing and the physical sensations of being. It states that ‘mindfulness is the art of observing our body-mind-world experiences with open receptivity as they arise’ – a helpfully vague statement – and aims for the user to forge more purposeful and meaningful connections with the world around them. It all sounds a bit daunting, but when translated into real activity what it simply means is: ‘sit there for ten minutes and try not to think too much’.

I initially opted for the ‘Mindfulness of Breathing’ exercise. This asks you to focus on your breathing for a solid ten minutes: an effort that proved to be quite laborious and tiring on my first try. My mind was continually racing, full of ideas that I wanted to scribble down for this article, and although the ten minutes passed surprisingly quickly, I finished the exercise feeling quite sleepy and drained. My experience didn’t improve much: on the second and third days, the exertion of concentrating on my breathing made me feel quite tense and uncomfortable, and I couldn’t help thinking that I was a lot more relaxed when I had been reading only five minutes before.

Although the second exercise ‘Mindful Check-In’ still infuriatingly persisted in telling me to be aware of my body-mind-world-experience (I mean, how do you even do that?) and the faux-calm voice in my headphones was still a little bit terrifying, this exercise was slightly better to practise: less increasingly shallow breathing, more abstract thoughts. But still not good enough to persuade me that mindfulness is something I should regularly practise.  

Although the app inadvertently contains some good advice – like how breathing can be a really effective anchor if you’re feeling stressed or anxious – I have to say that I found the entire experience of mindfulness a bit pointless. I don’t feel any more compassionate or creative. My attention span definitely hasn’t improved. Maybe I didn’t commit myself enough – after all, the app states that it’s important to meditate frequently, even when you’re not in the mood – but its advice to set a specific time to follow the exercises each and every day simply isn’t practical when you’re a student juggling lots of different responsibilities.

I decided to do it every night before I went to bed – the only slice of free time I regularly have – but even then mindfulness proved to be a vaguely annoying fetter. I could feel the mindfulness app judging me when I got in late after work and just wanted to binge on TV: but then who wants to solely breathe for a full ten minutes when you could be immersed in the lives of fictional characters?  And I’m the sort of person who takes half an hour to fall asleep; half an hour to subdue the thoughts that are constantly swirling around my brain. In general, exercises that encourage me to be even more introspective probably aren’t a good thing.

Mindfulness didn’t work for me. But one thing I have learned from my experiences over the past couple of weeks is that it’s important for everyone to focus more on the here-and-now and devote themselves to activities that do make them feel relaxed. So tomorrow I’m going to ignore uni for a day, go to a museum, browse in a bookshop, and eat some cake: my perfect definition of a mindful day.
[Rachel Walker]

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