Smelling the roses – becoming mindful not mindless

I recently conducted some sessions with athletes exploring stress management. One of the topics we covered was mindfulness. Now there are different understandings of what mindfulness actually is, but I draw on Prof. Mark Williams and Dr. Danny Penman’s understanding that being mindful involves observing your actions and world without judgement, and also showing compassion to yourself and others. In particular there is a large focus on knowing that you are not your thoughts. A nice image here is viewing your thoughts like clouds that come and go across the sky. Within the athlete sessions, in order to make mindfulness a tad more practical we tried out what is called the ‘Chocolate meditation’. This activity can also be done with some fruit as a healthier alternative, but involves being more attentive to the aroma and taste of the chocolate, enjoying it slowly. Although some of the athletes were unsure of the activity, and there was the odd raised eyebrow, all had a go at it. I asked what they felt the activity was all about, and how did it apply to a sport setting. One piped up and said, ‘aye, I get it – its about needing to stand back and smell the roses right. There is no shortage of desire to get to where we want to go, but we can struggle to actually enjoy the journey along the way’. Crucially, to be mindful allows us to savour what we are doing, as we are doing it. Particularly with long term projects, whether going to an Olympics, or designing a piece of technology, if we attend only to the outcome and not be mindful of the process we can become easily burnt out. 

The power of mindfulness though goes beyond an enhanced ability to savour the moment. Research has shown that mindfulness can boost our immune function, support recovery from mental ill-health, manage substance misuse, and enhance our relationships (see the list of ‘worth a read’ for references). Within sport and other performance settings it can help athletes concentrate deeply when required, recover from mistakes or errors and promote positive emotions in relation to learning a skill. In terms of evidence then, there is a strong suggestion that mindfulness is a beneficial attribute to develop. It also is worth contrasting it with Prof. Ellen J. Langer’s opposing term of mindlessness. Langer suggests that such mindless engagement is when we respond to things like as if we are on autopilot. She is not talking here about how we automatically execute a skill like hitting a golf ball, but rather a form of mental laziness like when we use stereotypes to make decisions, fail to explore our actions, or blindly follow routines or carry out senseless orders without reflection. In fact, Prof. Langer’s work recently appeared in the Guardian in relation to whether we can ‘think ourselves younger’ as she is famous for carrying out ‘Counter Clockwise’ studies on senior citizens within society. In one study she demonstrated that older adults in a retirement home were able to better deal with the depression of ageing by fostering greater ‘mindful choices’ in terms of what people want for themselves. In essence, it was mentally beneficial training these individuals to become more mindful of the routines they were in and make choices about what to change or keep included. 

Although we can reflect on the benefits of being mindful, and the pitfalls or being mindless, all change is based around altering our behaviour. So how may be begin to introduce mindful practice into our daily lives? Two simple ways are helpful. First, meditation is a powerful tool to help build greater awareness of yourself and your world. Although the actual type can vary, a typical meditation consists of attending to your breath as it flows in and out of your body. It can be enhanced further to include a body scan, which involves checking in on where muscular tensions exist in your body coupled with breathing exercises. A second form of mindfulness is my own favourite of ‘mindful walking’. Williams and Penman contend that ‘happiness is looking at the same things with different eyes’ (p. 106) and such walking feeds this idea by paying greater attention to the sensations and movements of your body – the swing of your arms, how your stride is, or feelings or warmth and cold. Similarly it also involves attending to your surroundings like noticing what smells your encounter, the different colours of plants or trees, or the sense of how your feet engage with different surfaces as you go. Indeed to walk itself promotes a mindful demeanour – Prof. Shane O’Mara in his book ‘In praise of walking’ reflects on this by stating, ‘we are not just minds immobile in the silent vat of our skulls: we are minds in movement, and we find movement intrinsically rewarding and motivating.’ Although there are other ways to become more mindful, meditative practice and mindful walking are good starting activities to help us ’smell the roses’ of everyday life. 

Worth a read:

Langer, E. J. (2014). Mindfulness. Boston, Da Capo Press.

O’Mara, S. (2019). In Praise of Walking: The New Science of How We Walk and Why it’s Good for us. London, Vintage.

Williams, M. and D. Penman (2011). Mindfulness: a practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world. London, Brown Book Group.

Benefits of mindfulness: 

Bowen, S., et al. (2006), ‘Mindfulness Meditation and Substance Use in an Incarcerated Population’, Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 20, pp. 343–7. 

Davidson, R. J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli, S. F., Urbanowski, F., Harrington, A., Bonus, K. & Sheridan, J. F. (2003), ‘Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation’, Psychosomatic Medicine, 65, pp. 567–70.

Fredrickson, B. L. and Levenson, R. W. (1998), ‘Positive emotions speed recovery from the cardiovascular sequelae of negative emotions’, Cognition and Emotion, 12, pp.191–220.

Gardner, F. L., & Moore, Z. E. (2012). Mindfulness and acceptance models in sport psychology: A decade of basic and applied scientific advancements. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne, 53(4), 309–318.

Hick, S. F., Segal, Z. V. & Bien, T., Mindfulness and the Therapeutic Relationship (Guilford Press, 2008).