“Can I just be down in the dumps for a minute…?”
If I were to walk into any popular bookshop in Cardiff, I’d be certain to find a book entitled something similar to ‘The Art of Mindfulness’, or ‘Colouring for Mindfulness’, or some other such venture. TED Talks, the radio, TV, YouTube – Mindfulness has spread its roots everywhere. This intriguingly named practice is all the craze these days, bringing in the cash for companies eager to jump on the bandwagon and create yet another doodle book or self-help manual. But what is Mindfulness, you might ask yourself, and why should I even care?
In my first year at University I happened to encounter Mindfulness, not through a self-help book but through an event advertised on cardiffstudents.com, the Cardiff Student Union website. It was a drop-in Mindfulness class run by a member of the local Buddhist Centre in the SU, open for all students to come and have a go. It was described as a kind of meditation, which appealed to me as I’d been undergoing a really bad bout of homesickness that seemed to be lasting all year, like some horrible cockroach refusing to budge out of my kitchen cupboard. It was stressing me and my family out, and I thought that maybe meditation, however far-fetched and strange it sounded, might help.
“ I felt a bit frustrated at how unexpectedly difficult the exercise had been, but also quite content with my thoughts. ”
I found myself sitting in a meeting room on the third floor of the SU, listening alongside a handful of other students to a lady talking to us dreamily about the benefits of meditation, and what we were going to do in the hour the session lasted. It turns out that Mindfulness is a blanket term covering lots of types of meditation, all centred around focusing on the present moment and accepting any thoughts and emotions you might be experiencing, however charged and emotional they might be. Specifically, we were practicing the Mindfulness of Breathing, involving breathing exercises and scrutiny of how the breath travels through the body.
Unsurprisingly, constant awareness of something as routine and unconscious as breathing isn’t particularly relaxing. It requires effort, concentration, and a strong determination not to fall asleep. My mind continually distracted itself with ridiculous thoughts and random memories of things that had happened to me throughout the day, but we were assured by our teacher that this was normal, and the key was to gently guide our minds back to the present moment, and to accept our thoughts instead of chasing them to a conclusion. I applied this instruction by advising myself ‘It’s OK, that’s OK, now back to this,’ as if leading a wayward dog back to the path. Needless to say, I was getting tired of the sound of my own inner voice by the end of it.
I had attended the session with a friend, and by the end of it she was quite bored and ready to head home and try some yoga instead. I felt a bit frustrated at how unexpectedly difficult the exercise had been, but also quite content with my thoughts. In the moment immediately following my Mindfulness session, I could believe that everything was going to be OK. I felt at peace with my own, usually frantic, mind.
“ But what I found I really like about it is the idea of accepting your thoughts and feelings. ”
However Mindfulness takes practice to really make a difference, and my homesickness certainly wasn’t gone. As every student probably knows, just like doing the laundry, cleaning the bathroom and taking out the rubbish, procrastination always seems the best way forward. I had spurts of dedication, practicing for ten minutes a day for long periods, but for the most part I was inconsistent. My homesickness eventually went, but honestly I think if I’d practiced Mindfulness more often, it would have been easier to deal with.
I don’t think that Mindfulness is a cure-all, or even a solution to difficult feelings and experiences, but I do think that for certain people it can make life as a student easier to cope with. It definitely isn’t for everyone, and I’m sure that a lot of people give up pretty soon due to the slow appearance of actual benefits to everyday life. But what I found I really like about it is the idea of accepting your thoughts and feelings. Instead of fighting your own mind, beating yourself up over how you feel and letting your emotions exhaust you, these strategies help you to accept how you feel and what you think. They don’t give you an answer – but they stop you getting so het up and emotional that you can’t think straight and just want to throw something at your annoying housemate, which would be a really bad idea.
If you practice Mindfulness enough, you’re meant to be able to access that state of mind when you are in the middle of a difficult situation and think logically and rationally, rather than immediately giving in to your initial feelings on the matter. This could’ve been helpful for me, helping me accept my homesickness as a natural consequence of moving away from home for the first time and finding better ways to deal with it than ringing up my parents in the middle of the night to have a little cry. It could be helpful for the guy who is feeling like everything is getting on top of him, to help him realise that although laundry seems daunting (and trust me, I’ve been there), taking it one step at a time will eventually lead to clean underwear. It could even help the girl who left revising for her exam till the last minute in accepting that the past is done, she can’t change it, but what matters now is to not panic, get her books out and do what she can, because that’s all she can do, and that’s OK.
If you want to practice Mindfulness at home, there’s an awesome website specifically for students with audio-guided practices available for free, linked below. It’s what I use when I want a bit of practice, and I have to say, imagining yourself as apowerfulmountain can be quite fun. As for the colouring books – colouring is fun and relaxing, but I’m not sure how relevant it is to actual meditation…