Be Mindful Of A Full Mind - Own Your Mindset
Updated: Feb 2, 2019
Cue the image of a room full of vegans, meditating cross-legged in a room full of bonsai trees and posters with 'enlightenment' and 'peace' written in bold letters…
…at least, that's what it used to represent for me before it became an integral part of my daily routine! (And believe me, I'm no vegan!)
In this post, I'll introduce you to what mindfulness actually is, what its benefits are, and the practice I cultivated to help me optimise my academic performance.
First and foremost - what is mindfulness?
Jon Kabat-Zinn, a world renowned expert in this subject, defines it as, “Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
In other words, whatever we’re doing, we can do in a mindful state. Mindfulness doesn’t have to come in the form of seated meditation, although the two are commonly associated with one another. But whether we’re studying, washing dishes, listening to music or playing a sport, mindfulness is simply the act of ‘filling our mind’ with what we're doing in such a way that we immerse in it in the present moment.
When other thoughts or feelings arise, we can simply observe them (without judgement), and then gently bring our awareness back to the moment or task at hand, letting the thought go in the process.
I’ve always found it helpful to imagine myself sitting on a bench at a train station. When a train of thought comes, I let it come. And when the train of thought leaves, I let it leave. And if the train stops and the doors open, I remember that I don’t need to board it. I can stay on my comfortable bench, watching the world around me and gently observing as the train departs.
Nevertheless, we can also choose to mindfully contemplate on our thoughts and feelings. It’s our ability to recognise and be consciously aware of what we’re doing in the present moment that makes an act mindful.
There are several ways in which we can practise mindfulness. Here are 4 methods to consider:
1) Bringing awareness to our senses: How does the action feel, and what does it look, taste, sound and smell like? Instead of focusing on describing these experiences with words and labels that we instinctively think about, focus more on enjoying seeing, tasting, touching, hearing and smelling them.
2) Bringing awareness to our breathing: For example, by keeping ‘count’ of the seconds we’re inhaling and exhaling for, or by using a repeated sound, word or statement (mantra).
3 Bringing awareness to our body: Feeling the sensations of an action on our body itself (for example, the feel against our skin, increased heart rate, whether it’s pleasurable or painful).
4) Bringing awareness to an object: Associating the ‘present moment’ (in terms of becoming aware of our senses/breathing/body) to an object we carry on our person, for example a necklace or bracelet. Once this has been done, the object can act as our anchor to pull our focus back to the moment at hand if our mind tries to run away. In making this a habit, we can train ourselves to return to the present moment by simply touching or holding the object.
Many clients that I work with express concerns about practising mindfulness meditation. These include:
I don’t have the time to sit down and meditate for 10 – 20 minutes a day.
I’m not flexible enough to sit cross-legged.
I get stressed about whether I’m practising mindfulness correctly or not.
I keep getting distracted and losing myself in my thoughts.
I tried it for a week and didn’t notice anything, so I stopped.
I completely understand these issues. Here are some points which my clients have found useful in addressing them.
Timothy Ferriss, the author of the 4-Hour Workweek, proposed that when starting a new project, task or routine, we should always ask ourselves one question: “What would this look like if it were easy?”
In other words, how can we make what we’re doing as simple, easy and enjoyable as possible for ourselves. We can always add complexity and difficulty to the routine in the future. But to start with, how can we make it easy for us to stay motivated to continue with our routine?
Remember - we’re not trying to become Buddhist monks; we’re trying to enjoy some simple benefits of mindfulness!
So, to start with, don’t worry about needing to practise mindfulness for 10 – 20 minutes a day. Start with 5 minutes (or even 3 minutes!) of sitting comfortably, closing your eyes, and becoming aware of your senses, your breathing, or your surroundings. With time and practise, you’ll start to enjoy mindfulness so much that you won’t want to stop!
Don’t worry too much about your sitting position. Light Watkins, a renowned Vedic meditation instructor and the author of ‘Bliss More: How To Succeed In Meditation Without Really Trying', even talks about how we can begin our meditation practice by sitting in the same comfortable position that we watch TV in!
Don’t fret about whether you’re practising mindfulness meditation correctly or not. If thoughts come, let them. If emotions arise, let them. Even if you spent your entire 10 minutes of meditation completely lost in thought, the fact that you realised how you spent those 10 minutes is something to celebrate! It means that you’re practising and cultivating the skill of self-awareness.
Mindfulness should be practised daily to yield sustained benefits. After all, you don’t go to the gym for a week and expect your body to be fit for the rest of your life. The key to creating a routine is to make it as easy and enjoyable as possible to the extent that you look forward to doing it.
So, just start with 5 minutes. Sit on your couch or go for a walk. Notice your surroundings, your senses, your breath, your thoughts and your feelings. Enjoy the experience!
So, can mindfulness help you?
A quick Google search will inform you that the practice of mindfulness has become increasingly prevalent in the Western world, with various academic studies reinforcing the benefits of mindfulness. Mindfulness has been positively correlated with increased resilience, self-awareness and focus of students, as well as reductions in stress and psychological distress.
Not bad. But does it work for the ordinary person not involved in a scientific study?
Well, I can't speak for everyone, but it certainly did for me...
During my university studies, I came up with my own mindfulness practice that was specifically tailored towards addressing my anxieties and fears about exams.
After over-working and under-performing during my first two years at the University of Cambridge, I knew I needed to make a change in my 3rd year if I wanted to improve on a pair of 2.ii grades.
However, due to certain personal challenges I was facing (relationship, physical health, mental health etc.) at the start of my 3rd year, it soon became apparent that exams were the least of my worries! A few months into my 3rd year, I began experimenting with mindfulness meditation as a means of helping me de-stress and empty my mind of the issues plaguing me.
Thankfully, as exams rolled around 6 months-later, I'd worked through most of my problems, allowing me to dedicate myself to the task at hand!
I had created a detailed, but flexible 3-month revision plan prior to the start of my exams (which I now help clients to do!). This allowed me to plan around my revision to incorporate exercise, seeing friends, cooking and mindfulness - all keys to maintaining a positive mindset. In addition, the structured approach gave me the feeling of being 'in control' of my time, and was pivotal in helping to reign off anxiety.
However, most importantly, I also adapted the mindfulness techniques I'd learned to help me optimise my performance during the revision process.
So, what exactly did my 'study mindfulness' process entail?
Twice a day - normally after-lunch and after-dinner - I'd take mindfulness breaks (Time taken would depend on time available and my personal need for the break - in general, between 15-30 minutes).
In my case, I would go for a walk around nearby fields/sit on a bench, as being in nature aided me in relaxing. I would emphasise that it doesn't matter where you go, so long as you move away from your usual study area!
My routine was as follows:
1. 3-5 minutes of gentle walking whilst listening to music.
This helped me to relax, take my mind away from thinking about the content I was revising, whilst also allowing room for my fears and anxieties about exams/studies/anything else to crop up…
2. 5-10 minutes of quiet, mindful contemplation.
This involved turning my music off, opening up my 'Notes' page on my iPhone and writing down whatever anxiety I was feeling (e.g. feeling like I was afraid of failing, that I wasn't working hard enough, that I was overwhelmed etc.) .
Apart from a phone, you can use a pen/paper or laptop - the key is simply to write down the feelings that come up in a non-judgemental manner! I cannot emphasise how powerful it is to take scattered, unstructured thoughts that roam around in your mind, causing distress but then eluding you when you to try to grasp at them, and instead writing them down in a tangible, structured form.
Simply by bringing the feelings outside of your mind, you're already putting yourself in a position of greater control over them! Don't be afraid if there are tears - it's nothing to be ashamed of to give a damn about your future! Do your utmost to keep the thoughts non-judgemental - this is a reflection of how you feel at this moment in time, which does not define who you are!
3. 5-10 minutes of mindful resolution.
With everything written down, I was ready to begin addressing the fears and anxieties that had come up during my contemplation period.
I would seek out the root source of the anxiety, and then assess the extent to which I had control over it (e.g. how much I revise = control ; who chooses the questions in the paper = no control ). If it was controllable, I'd write down a plan of action to address it, or reinforce how I was already addressing it. If it was out of my control, I'd grapple with the thought and the implications it could have on my result, take a deep breath, and simply say, 'f**k it!', as I exhaled!
After all, by focusing on doing whatever was in my control, I would be leaving no room for regrets, regardless of the eventual outcome.
In addition, if I was feeling demotivated, I'd also reinforce the reasons as to why I was currently undertaking the course of action in the present (e.g. revision for exams) by realigning with the goals I'd set for the future (e.g. keep options open as to the career I wish to pursue) and the purpose of me being in the position I was in at this moment in time (e.g. achieve a 1st class so that all career options are open and available to me should I wish to take them).
4. 5 minutes of mindful breathing (minimum - by all means enjoy for longer!).
With my anxieties addressed, I would be able to relax and immerse myself in my walking/sitting by practising mindful breathing. I highly recommend this practice put forth by Vietnamese Zen-Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, in his brilliant book, The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching. I still practice it to this day - amazing on a crowded underground train! You do not have to close your eyes when practising mindfulness - but during mindful breathing, it can help you focus on your breath if your sense of sight isn't distracting you!
I ended up achieving 1st Class honours in my degree in my all-important 3rd year - and I largely owe that accomplishment to this mindfulness practice for helping me maintain my mental well-being and optimising my performance whilst studying!
Practising mindfulness provided me with the following benefits:
Feeling refreshed, re-energised and motivated to work.
No longer stressed by anxieties and fears about exams (or otherwise) - by writing down anxieties and fears during mindful contemplation, I cultivated a self-awareness that allowed me to address them more effectively whenever they came up in days/months/years to come.
Improved memory retention and increased focus during revision - just giving my mind that short break before returning to my studies helped me to absorb the content with greater ease!
So, for any of you on the fence about mindfulness, I hope that this post has clarified for you how beneficial it can be, and how it really isn't too complex or time-consuming to implement in your everyday life!
You can also check out some more of my insights on mindfulness and meditation practises with you from the 10-Day Silent Vipassana Meditation I did in August 2017.
Whether you choose to adopt it into your routine or not, I wish you nothing but success in your endeavours!
Keep growing. Keep striving. Keep shining!
Kam Taj is a University of Cambridge graduate (Engineering Tripos, BA, MEng, 2011-15), ICF-Accredited performance coach, motivational speaker and author of 'The Ultimate Guide To Exam Success'. He runs training workshops at schools, universities and companies on personal & professional development, with a focus on performance improvement in their field of choice. When he's not running workshops or coaching private clients, you can find him playing tennis, hanging on gymnastic rings and making cheesy motivational Instagram posts.