When we first learn to drive a car, the most important pedal is the brake – we need to know how to slow down and stop before we even think of turning on the ignition. It’s so much common sense, we take it for granted. And yet, we teach ourselves to multi-task, taking on more and more jobs, hobbies – technology allowing us faster and faster reactions and bigger and bigger networks; yet we never learn to slow down, much less stop.
A slow mind isn’t valued, down time is seen as a luxury or even something to feel guilty about. And we wonder why we struggle to sleep, focus and remain free of stress.
Mindfulness is about prioritising moment to moment. It is not about shutting out or ignoring; being aware does not mean reacting to, it actually allows you to notice when you would react negatively – by which I mean in a manner that serves no positive purpose to your environment.
After I was diagnosed with the debilitating illness ME and confined to a wheelchair when I was 19, I made it my mission to travel the globe and learn everything I could about health so I could recover as fully as possible.
Being mindful during my illness allowed me to find my way out of the wheelchair, navigate an otherwise minefield of stress by having to opt out of the prescribed order of things and find my own path.
Studying in Hawaii, having read everything I could get my hands on about the immune system and the mind-body connection, I found Lomi Lomi. It was not just the physical approach to the body, but the whole culture of anatomy that made sense. Looking at the body as part and parcel of the person, emotions and life events rather than a separate notion made total sense.
The way of listening to the body – I learned the importance of the mind in this and all dis-ease.
I went on to study Vipasanna meditation in Thailand and I ordained as a nun in a monastery. Vipasanna is often called acknowledgement or mindfulness meditation and is the training of the brain to be able to prioritise and focus.
The simple act of acknowledging experience as it is, separate to our emotional reaction allows you to not burden yourself with the stress that daily life can stack up on you. It is a living practice – one that you can practice all day long going about your daily life, not just sitting in a quiet room.
The strength of the mind is phenomenal and having coping mechanisms for dealing with life is a vital part of anyone’s well-being, ME or not.
As a professional long distance swimmer who is swimming around the globe in the next year, mindfulness is my constant companion and when people ask what I think about when I swim – or what keeps me going – it is mindfulness. From rhythmically watching my breath to noticing pain and adjusting my stroke accordingly, I am in a perfect crucible of acknowledgement, face down in the water, sensory deprivation and overload all at once. Being able to focus dispassionately on both my mind and body allows me to make what seem like minor adjustments along the way which pan out to be better life decisions. I am working with my mind not battling my reactions which then makes it easier to see a way forward.
Mindfulness is mental training and a vital part of endurance on all levels, and life is an endurance event. It is relentless and constant. That doesn’t have to be daunting. Each and every breath can bring you back to the present in a calm centred state.
Every step can be a soothing ritual even if you are walking along the office corridor. As with all the pain and fatigue, doubt and fear I face down in the depths of the channels, it is the act of letting that go that enables you to move forward. So with every mindful moment you can let go of the build up of stress, the overload and keep coming back to your own sense of self.