In the summer of this year I attended an eight week Mindfulness course at Bangor University, North Wales. In typical me style I signed up for the course rather spontaneously. In the space of 5 minutes I had discovered the existence of the course, scanned the information page, filled in an application form, entered my card details and paid £200. I have a vague memory of a pop up box asking me why I had signed up for the course. I typed something about wanting to be ‘more in the present’ and a desire to ‘reconnect with myself’ – buzz phrases I had undoubtedly heard or read somewhere. I received a confirmation email, directions, a recommended reading list and a sentence letting me know that Annee (the course leader) was looking forward to meeting me at the first session.
I can’t say that Mindfulness was not what I was expecting, because truthfully, I hadn’t reflected upon it enough to expect anything. When I walked into the room on my first week I was confronted with twenty or so chairs in a circle. Sporadically sitting on these chairs was a collection of mildly apprehensive looking women and two men.
Mindfulness is, as I’ve learnt, a type of meditation and also a particular way of viewing ourselves and others. It is, in essence, self-awareness. An awareness of ourselves as human beings who think and feel and belong to a world full of other thinking, feeling human beings. It is an awareness of ourselves in the present moment, right now. The sounds that surround us, the smells, the touch of our clothes, the emotions we feel, the thoughts bubbling under the surface of our consciousness.
Mindfulness, as an eight week course, is essentially a series of meditations, discussions and exercises designed to help us become more aware of ourselves in the present moment. Increased self-awareness of our thoughts and feelings can enable us to have a degree of control over them. This control can then prevent us getting tangled, blinded, and sometimes overwhelmed by our own selves.
During that first session we were asked, once again, why we had signed up for Mindfulness. Why we were sitting there at 7pm on a work night instead of at home, eating dinner in front of the TV. That was the first time I really thought about why I was there and my answer surprised me. I had become lost within myself. I had become swept away in a world of assessments, reports, meetings, convenience food, family, friends, life. As a result I had lost sight of myself.
Over the following seven weeks I set to learn more about myself. I practiced a lot ‘body scan’ meditations, a meditation that trains the mind to focus solely on bodily sensations. I spent twenty minutes at a time focusing just on my breath. When I noticed my mind wander I was instructed to bring my attention back to the present. I was taught not to be self-critical, but to be self-compassionate. Not to get frustrated or embarrassed when I fell asleep (and snored) during a meditation, but to congratulate myself on being comfortable enough to relax.
I once spent ten minutes eating a single raisin. Looking at it, tasting it, smelling it, even hearing it! I walked around a room incredibly slowly and realised I walk a bit wonky and to the left. I volunteered information to the group about my family; about how much I love them and how they shape my values and identity. I came to understand that I am a bit of a perfectionist and can often view myself in all-or-nothing ways. In sum, Mindfulness reminded me who I was.
Looking back, I think each member of the group attended for different reasons. Some people had physical health problems, some experienced anxiety or depression, some wanted to get back in touch with themselves, some were just curious to see what all the Mindfulness hype was about. Also, each member of the group achieved something different out of Mindfulness. I definitely got far more out of Mindfulness than I ever anticipated and I would recommend it to anyone interested in taking a step back and reconnecting with themselves.