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Paying attention to the present

Focusing on the current moment through meditation can help improve your mental health on a daily basis

05 November 2019, at 9:00am

In the February 2018 issue of Veterinary Practice magazine, I introduced mindful meditation as a part of living mindfully. Meditation can have profound effects on those who subscribe to doing it habitually. If we can make it part of our daily routine, the results can be life changing.

I was sceptical too; and yet almost as soon as I discovered how powerful mindful meditation is (and that it works immediately), I was sold.

Although mindfulness has been around for thousands of years, its application in Western psychology is relatively recent. Meditation will help you discover an understanding of how thoughts and feelings influence your behaviour.

John Kabat Zinn, a very well-known mindfulness practitioner, defines mindfulness as “paying attention to the present moment on purpose, non-judgementally”.

So many of us don’t have the time to meditate. One solution is to set the alarm an hour earlier than before. Only you can do this. Only you can meditate for you.

A word of caution from personal experience: although the beneficial effects are immediate, which is very rewarding and incentivising, if you skip a morning or two, there are no residual benefits from the meditation you did last week. It has to become a daily habit to change every day for the better.

And I suppose that is a no-brainer. If we are truly living in the moment, on purpose, then it is fitting that the meditation we do today affects today.

Also, there is a huge difference between non-guided meditation, which we are aiming for here, and guided meditation, which can be done using apps such as Headspace, Calm and buddhify.

While any meditation is better than none, the benefits of non-guided over guided meditation are enormous. It takes so much more time to achieve the same results with an app than it does if you are your own guide.

Paying attention, on purpose

It’s so hard to make ourselves aware of “just now” for an extended period of time. Our minds naturally wander to tasks that need to be done, things we need to sort out, what happened last night, what may happen next weekend, etc.

If you’ve been meditating for some time already, well done. Sometimes it can be useful to bring yourself back to the basics of pinpoint concentration on “nothingness”. See how long you can manage that for. It takes enormous focus and discipline to be able to maintain this clarity of the mind. It is so important to start any meditation session clarifying the mind like this.

For those embarking on meditation for the first time, it may be too difficult to focus on nothing. I advise beginners to focus on “something” instead.

For example, try focusing on your breath and nothing else. It doesn’t have to be deep breaths, or shallow. It can be any breaths you take. Notice it. See if you can maintain focus on your breathing and nothing else. If that’s not working for you, some people find it useful to count the breaths to maintain focus.

All thoughts that try to enter your mind at this stage, you need to gently push aside. Right here, right now, you are clearing your mind and all thoughts can wait until another time. By creating extra time in your day, you deserve these moments to not be spent organising, sorting or thinking. If you hadn’t set the alarm to meditate, you wouldn’t be sorting them out either – you would be asleep – so they just have to wait until later.

If you do find that your mind has wandered, it isn’t failure. Rather it is useful that you notice it. Each time you gently push those thoughts to the left or to the right, you are getting better at clearing your mind. It takes training to become good at maintaining the focus.

Some people imagine a narrow slit of light in front of them. This light is the clear mind they are aiming for. As each thought enters their mind, they push it to the left or to the right as if pushing back the shutters to open their mind and make this slit of light wider and wider until it becomes a window of light to focus on. One practitioner I met started his meditations with reciting the words “just” at every inhalation and “now” at each exhalation until he achieved total focus. Whatever works for you is great.

So my mind is clear. Big deal. Now what?

It’s hard for me to describe just how much maintaining clarity of the mind for extended periods of time can make an average day feel fantastic.

Worries about the future and past can negatively influence our behaviour in the present. Mindfulness can counter this process by teaching us to focus on the current moment.

For this month, achieving a clear mind each morning for as long as you possibly can is enough. Observe if you find it easier as the weeks go by. Notice if some mornings it’s easier than others.

Next month, I will introduce how to allow emotions into this clear space one at a time and how to accept those emotions non-judgementally.

Laura Woodward Counselling

Laura Woodward has been the surgeon at Village Vet Hampstead for over 10 years. Laura is also a qualified therapeutic counsellor and is affiliated with the ACPNL and the ISPC. She runs Laurawoodward.co.uk – a counselling service for vets and nurses.

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