How plants and vegetation can help you be mindful

Plants like these can help you be mindful at home

Nature is beautiful. I find it easiest to be mindful when I’m in nature. Being aware of the present moment seems a lot simpler when I’m on a stroll in the wood or somewhere with lots of birds singing and the sun shining. So, one of the ways I’ve managed to achieve more mindfulness in my own home is by buying plants to keep around the house. A psychotherapist once told me that she keeps plants in the rooms that her patients will come into because it, for whatever reason, leads to them being more expressive in their session. I’m not sure if this is true – but it certainly feels true. Having a live plant in my house that I care for, without the stress of a pet, in a way helps me to cultivate empathy and compassion. Being compassionate towards a plant? Sounds ridiculous, but there is some truth in it.

You can buy some great seeds and plants online, and I’d highly recommend doing so. Having plants in my house has somehow made me less stressed. Having some greenery amongst my industrial and wooden furniture is really lovely. My grandmother keeps a whole garden full of plants, with apple trees and raspberry shrubs and more. I wish I had the time to do something like that, but having a few little plants that I’ve grown myself still gives me a fraction of that feeling of satisfaction.

For the past few years I’ve wanted to own a pet, but I’m not allowed to have one where I live. That’s a shame, and honestly I’m not sure I would even have the necessary time to dedicate to a pet, but having a plant kind of acts as a substitute for a pet – an ersatz kitten. Plants can actually be kind of cute – okay, I’m getting slightly ahead of myself but I do genuinely believe there’s something to be said for the idea that having any form of life in your home will be good for your mental wellbeing.

Is mindfulness only a trend?

Is mindfulness only a trend?

Lots of people have asked me, as someone really into mindfulness and meditation, whether it’s only a trend. Is mindfulness a fad, nothing more than a metaphysical fidget spinner, or is there something inherent to the concept of meditation and mindfulness that it cannot be a fad? A lot of writers, including some in the Guardian, have argued that mindfulness is a way for people to simply sell you things and piggyback off Eastern traditions and spirituality. Some have used the term McMindfulness to describe the commercialisation of mindfulness and eastern spiritual practices.

In my view, mindfulness cannot possibly be a trend. Certainly, there will be some people out there who don’t take mindfulness seriously, and only use it to sell products or for other ulterior motives. But most people who practice mindfulness take it very seriously and have incorporated it into our lives for years. Can something that is derived from centuries old meditation practices really be considered a trend or a fad?

Some people have argued that if you divorce mindfulness from its spiritual context and make it a secular activity, it devalues what mindfulness and meditation is really about. Meditation, these people argue, comes from Buddhist traditions, and without attaching the relevant Buddhist spirituality and spiritual texts, mindfulness becomes a pale shadow of what it is meant to be.

I disagree. You don’t have to be spiritual to get benefits out of mindfulness, and indeed, many secular societies and groups have looked into the benefits of mindfulness and discovered that they still apply even when meditation practice is divorced from its context in Buddhism. Mindfulness would be ridiculously successful for a trend – hundreds of millions of people practice mindfulness and meditation, and meditation centres are established across the world. There are five in my city alone.

Either way, perhaps the real takeaway is that it doesn’t much matter if mindfulness is a trend. Who cares? If it benefits us to use it as a tool for improving our mental wellbeing, I don’t much mind if it’s a trend or if it isn’t. I’ve found a huge benefit from it, and whether people think of it as a fad or not doesn’t affect that.

How I started walking 10,000 steps every day

Walking 10k every day is good for you

Exercise is so important, for mindfulness and for our physical and mental wellbeing. It can be really hard though: establishing a routine of going for a daily jog or cycle or swim is unbelievably tough. So, I really recommend walking, especially to those who find vigorous exercise a challenge. What I really recommend is aiming to get 10,000 steps a day. There are dozens of pedometer apps you can get on your phone, and all of them will have the goal pre-set at getting that 10k. It becomes something of a game, I know I’ve got into the habit of checking the app I use (pacer) to see if I’ve reached the magic 10k. It really does motivate you, and walking is a great way to be in the moment and take note of the world around you. When I walk I noticed the blue sky and the green grass and the trees and my own emotions and reaction to the world around me.

Another reason that I think that walking is fantastic is that it allows you to take some time out of your busy life and just focus on the now, and think for a bit. I almost always come up with new ideas and solutions to problems I’ve been having while on my daily walk. It’s funny: going for a walk can allow you to come up for a solution to a problem you’ve been working on all day. They say that Einstein came up with some of his greatest work while doing a mundane job at the patent office, and I think something similar applies to me for walking. I can spend all day working on a task and then finally I’ll come up with the answer when I’m no longer working on it.

The way to start getting 10,000 steps is pretty simple: aim low. Start using your pedometer and see what your average is. If it’s 1000, that’s totally fine. It doesn’t much matter, the point is that you want to see what kind of numbers you’re hitting without putting any effort in. Then, try to increase the number of steps you take. Pretty obvious, right? Walk to work instead of driving. Get off the bus a few stops early and walk the rest. Walk to the bar instead of getting the train. These small, simple changes will allow you to rack up the steps. Of course, the big thing is making the conscious decision to go for a long walk. Go to the most beautiful part of your city and just take in your environment. Be mindful of where you are and the people around you and the sounds you hear. Listen to music if you’d like, or put on an audiobook. I’ve read that Stephen Fry lost a load of weight by walking around and listening to audiobooks for hours on end. I’ve also read that David Mitchell became much healthier by walking around, which he was suggested to do in order to help with his back pain.

Walking 10,000 steps eventually becomes a pleasure, not a chore. I find it difficult to have a day without my 10,0000 steps. Downloading a pedometer on my iPhone and counting my steps was one of the best decisions I ever made.

How exercise promotes mindfulness

Exercise is a great way to promote mindfulness

Exercise. Urgh. We all know it’s good for us, and most of us really don’t like it. It’s a bit like mindfulness, in a way. At first. We’re all beginning to gradually accept that mindfulness and meditation are good for us too, but that doesn’t stop most of us from trying to get out of doing it. Something I’ve noticed is that, while you’re exercising, it’s pretty easy to be mindful. Focusing on the breath and the body becomes a lot easier when you’re quickly losing your breath and your heartrate is going into overdrive.

Different types of exercise aid mindfulness in different ways. When you’re swimming, it becomes quite simple to notice the feeling of the water on your body, and notice the escalated pulse, and experience the smells and sounds of the pool. Playing football lets you focus on the green of the grass and the feeling of the wind in your hair as you run. Exercise, in its own way, is one of the best times at which you can be mindful. And combining exercise and mindfulness is a sure-fire way to get a huge dopamine boost and feel good about yourself.

Another advantage of exercise as a form of mindfulness is that it isn’t impossibly difficult to incorporate exercise into your everyday life, which means that mindfulness is incorporated into your everyday life by proxy. If you cycle to work or school every day, and you’re able to mindfully cycle and be aware of the feelings in your body and the road ahead of you, you’ve found a simple way to add mindfulness into your life every single day. I’ve written before a list of how to incorporate mindfulness into your life every day and why it’s so important, and exercise would make a fine addition to that list.

One thing I used to do was do my daily workout, and then have a meditation session directly afterwards. The reason that this came so easily to me was because, while exercising, I was already hyper aware of the experience and the present moment, and so meditation directly afterwards felt like a natural continuation of that. When you have just woken up or whatever and go directly into a meditation session, it can often feel like you’ve gone straight from one thing (sleep, work, etc.) and into a completely different thing. Meditation doesn’t feel like much else, but I do think that when you’re exercising you do get some of that same feeling that you get from meditation and mindfulness, especially if you’re making a conscious effort to exercise mindfully.

Exercising is fantastic. It makes you feel great, it makes you healthier, and it makes you look better. There is nothing bad I can say about adding exercise to your daily routine. But if you’re able to combine that exercise with mindfulness, either by exercising mindfully or by making a meditation session the thing you become used to doing after taking up your exercise, the benefits of exercise will be multiplied.

Five top tips for meditation at home

Meditation at home can be just as effective as at a centre

I’ve always found it easier to go and meditate at a meditation group than I have to meditate at home. I’m not sure why. I think it’s because the place you’ll go to partake in a meditation group will inevitably be designed to make it as meditation-friendly as possible. In my view, one of the ways you can make sure that you’re more mindful at home and are more likely to meditate regularly is by making your home similar to the kind of places you’d go to do meditation in a group. Here are some tips for how to do that.

1) Make sure that you’ll be free from distractions during your session

At a meditation centre, there are strict rules that nobody is to come in during the session. You won’t be distracted by some bozo waltzing in and asking what the code for the internet is. Not so at home. Your spouse, your flatmate, or your kids are liable to come in at any moment. Your phone could ring. So, what should you do? The obvious answer is to wait until nobody is home and put your phone on Airplane mode. If you cannot avoid meditation at a time when other people are in the house, kindly request that they give you ten or fifteen minutes without distraction so that you’re able to meditate

2) Get meditation pillows

Meditation on a hard chair is fine. Meditating on a sofa or a bed is also fine. But these things aren’t optimal. Whenever you go to a meditation centre they’ll have these pillows, and they’ll advise you on the proper posture to meditate with the pillows. I bought a couple of these pillows online and I have to say, it does make a difference. Meditation for long periods of time with comfortable pillows specifically designed for meditation is great. It makes it so much easier and I’m much less prone to be distracted.

3) Wear the right clothes

Meditation in a suit is bit antithetical to the purpose of meditating. That’s not some kind of jab at people who work in business or need to wear a suit to work, it’s a comment on how important it is to be wearing relaxing clothes while you meditate. Nobody wants to be distracted by the feeling of tight trousers pushing into your stomach. It’s so much easier to meditate properly when you’re wearing comfortable, loose-fitting clothes.

4) Use guided videos on Youtube

There are so many great guided meditations on youtube, I don’t need to bother linking to them because a search on Youtube for ‘guided meditation’ will give you plenty to start with. Instead of just going straight into silence, begin your meditation practice by putting on a guided video, often from a real Buddhist monk with years and years of experience, just like at a Buddhist centre or secular meditation centre.

5) Get some incense

This can be a controversial one because a lot of people don’t like smells while they’re meditating. I like them because they act as something to focus on and I’m easily distracted if I’m only focusing on my own breath. For this reason, I highly recommend buying incense and trying it for only a few of your sessions, and seeing if you see an improvement.

How watching movies can be a form of meditation

Watching movies can be a form of meditation

What exactly is meditation? When most of us imagine meditation, we imagine sitting around, perhaps with some impossibly hard to achieve posture, maybe with some incense and a few meditation pillows. This perception of meditation as a hippie-dippy new-age pursuit is pernicious, because meditation (and mindfulness) can be achieved by doing the same things that we do every day, but in a mindful way. If we brush our teeth and are fully aware of the fact that we are brushing our teeth, not lost in thought about today’s work meetings or yesterday’s arguments, we are being mindful, and we are meditating.

One of the best ways to meditate, in my opinion, is by watching movies. This can be done at home, but I think the best way to achieve a state of mindfulness is by actually going to your local cinema and watching a film. The reason watching a movie is so great as a form of meditation, especially at the cinema, is because it’s so easy to engage fully with a movie. When you’re at the cinema it’s pretty much impossible to check your phone every few minutes (I would hope! I know there are a few people who annoyingly do check their phones all the time while at the movie theatre). Distracting thoughts are less likely to permeate into your skull when you’re being blasted by a massive sound system. Okay, that doesn’t exactly sound pleasant, but you get my point.

Movies are also a good way to cultivate compassion. When we go to the cinema, most movies give us an opportunity to engage with the characters, and take on their problems and feelings for an hour or two. If you go to see a film about an Indonesian skateboarder, it’s likely that you’re entering a world you know nothing about. For a brief amount of time, you’re transported into this whole other universe and get to think about the problems of others that you didn’t even know existed.

Meditation, at its core, is about focusing on the present experience instead of being focused on the future, or on the past. Movies are a way that most of us do this very often. That isn’t to say that it’s incredibly easy to be mindful while we’re at the cinema, we can still get distracted and we can still lose track of the plot because we’re thinking about other things. But it’s easier to bring our focus back to the trials and tribulations of a character on the big screen than it is to bring our focus back to the breath during a meditation session.

I love movies. I read a study a few years ago that suggested that people who go to the cinema regularly are generally happier and calmer, and I can totally believe it. By taking the time out of our stressful lives to watch a movie, we allow ourselves to become totally engrossed in someone else’s life: this allows us to cultivate empathy and be mindful in a way that’s relatively easy, and fun!

How to eat mindfully

Eat this bit of cake mindfully! Yum

Eating mindfully is a good idea. I know it can seem like this blog recommends doing everything mindfully, and in a way, it does (other than maybe driving!), but that’s because being mindful in the things we do every day is the best way to work mindfulness in our daily life. Eating mindfully is an especially good idea, because eating is something we do not just once per day but usually more than four or five times each day. This means that even if you don’t have time to eat mindfully every time you eat, you can do it for one meal each day or even just for your daily snack. Here‘s a great article I wrote on how to incorporate mindfulness into your life every single day.

So, what are the advantages of eating mindfully? There are several. Firstly, slowing down and paying attention to the flavours and texture of what you eat makes you enjoy your food more, and in a world where most of us eat microwaved dinner while watching television while talking to our partner while flicking through a magazine, focusing on eating and only eating can really allow us to enjoy our food and appreciate the flavour that we didn’t even realise was in it!

Secondly, eating mindfully means we tend to eat less. When we gobble down m&ms while doing something else, we binge eat and we don’t even really get any satisfaction from the sugary snack. If you replace the m&ms with a luxurious bar of dark chocolate and maybe a cup of high-quality coffee, eating mindfully will mean you eat far fewer calories and keep your waistline down while enjoying the food far more than you otherwise would have. Studies have shown that people who eat mindfully are likely to eat a much more sensible portion than people who don’t experience their food properly.

How do we eat mindfully? The first step is to smell your food. You don’t have to bring it to your nose and focus intensely (although you can if you want to), you can just appreciate the smell of the food as you bring it to your mouth for the first bite. A huge portion of our sense of taste comes from smell, and by smelling the food it really is much easier to appreciate the flavour. Grab a bar of good dark chocolate and allow the scent to crawl up into your nose.

Then, take a bite of your food. Roll it around in your mouth, take note of the texture of the food. Is it sweeter than you expected? More bitter? How would you describe the flavours to someone who had never eaten the food before? If you had to compare the food to another completely different food, can you think of one that might be surprising to hear at first but would make sense upon taking a bite? If you can answer these questions, you’re being mindful of the real flavours of the food rather than just gobbling down some unhealthy snack and not appreciate what it really tastes like.

Eating mindfully can be pretty tough. It isn’t easy to do something manually when we’re so used to being on autopilot all the time when we eat. If you are able to do it, though, you’ll gain an opportunity to be mindful every single day, you’ll eat more sensible sized portions, and you’ll enjoy your food more.

Buying a mindfulness coloring book was surprisingly effective

Coloring things in is a great way to achieve mindfulness

Coloring is for kids, right? Well, that’s what they tell us. Until recently. A few years ago, the mindfulness coloring trend really took off, and I didn’t actually think much of it. Meditation was enough for me, coloring stuff didn’t appeal to me as a means of stress relief and being in the moment. But a few months ago, a friend recommended I get one. Now, this friend wasn’t one of those hippie-dippy mindfulness practitioners who was constantly recommending me pointless rubbish, he was a good friend of mine who I trusted, so I decided to give it a go.

And you know what? It worked. It was a way of being mindful that I enjoyed in a way that meditation didn’t give me. It was cathartic. I felt as though I was experiencing the moment in a way that I didn’t through simple meditation. Meditation is still more important to me, and I think it’s the thing to prioritise if we’re going to be thinking about how we ought to pursue being in the moment, but mindful coloring books can act as a nice change of pace for those of us who are already established in our meditation habits. I’ve been meditating for a long time, so buying one of these coloring books was a new thing for me that really was more effective than I had expected.

Another big advantage of mindful coloring books is that you feel like you’ve actually achieved something after you’ve colored in a full page or a double-page spread. I don’t mean to boast, but my colored fields and sunflowers looked pretty great. I don’t think I’m going to get into the Louvre any time soon, but maybe this is something that will lead to me getting more into art than I currently am. Using a mindfulness coloring book makes being mildly creative easy, and I say that as someone whose piece of art was once mistaken for the work of a child.

What is mindfulness really about? It’s about being in the moment. How you achieve that is up to you, it doesn’t have to be through esoteric chanting or disciplined asceticism, it can be through, well, coloring. If coloring a page is a way for you to be in the moment (and it worked for me), go for it! It’s a great simple way to take some time out of our busy, stressful lives and simply do something and concentrate on doing it. I wrote recently about how important it is to be mindful during times of immense stress, and this is a way that makes it incredibly easy to do that.

Some of us will stick to meditation, and that’s fine. Some of us will find other, more unconventional approaches, and that’s fine too. I like to combine both ways of being mindful: traditional, evidence-based meditation, combined with fun little things like mindfulness coloring books. Are they going to change your life? Probably not. Are they going to make it easier to practice mindfulness every day? Probably. Are they a fun way to spend some time destressing? Definitely.

Three great books to help our understanding of mindfulness

Books can help foster our understanding of ourselves

Mindfulness is pretty simple, right? In theory, we shouldn’t need any kind of books or aids to help us be mindful. Being mindful is just being in the moment, appreciating life as it comes and noticing the thoughts and feelings we experience. But after a few months of practicing mindfulness, often we reach a plateau during which we feel like the benefits aren’t coming as easily and doing even ten minutes a day just seems, well, pretty tough.

Something I never really thought I’d be recommending was mindfulness books. I thought mindfulness was something that you learn by going straight into the deep end, and that practice alone would allow me to perfect my mindfulness habits over the course of a few months or years. But earlier this year, I gave a few books a go to help improve my technique, and was really surprised at the variety of methods and could refine my practice in a way that suited me. So here are three books that I’ve found really, really helpful in improving my mindfulness experience.

1) Mindfulness in plain English

This, if anything can stake a claim to it, is the Mindfulness Bible. Forget all the spiritual jargon and the dubious claims that most mindfulness books make, this boils down mindfulness to its core elements and explains in incredible detail exactly how to achieve the state you want to through pursuing mindfulness techniques.

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2) Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world

This book takes a more scientific approach; it walks you through the data that prove the benefits of mindfulness, and does so in a way that is easy to understand and gives you the evidence you need to relieve yourself of any doubts you do have. If you want to convince a friend of the benefits of mindfulness or still have any scepticism yourself, this is the book you want to be getting.

3) I am here now: a mindfulness journal

I am here now takes a different approach to mindfulness, giving you the chance to do mindfulness exercises in the book rather than just offering an explanation for a practical understanding of mindfulness. I am here now is a quirky book, it has mazes and colouring sections, but this doesn’t mean you can’t get a lot out of it. These books take it back to basics and forces you to just be in the moment, which is really useful if you’re having trouble with overthinking your practice.

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These books are the ones I’ve enjoyed and found the most interesting and useful, but what about you? Which books do you especially recommend to people who are interested in mindfulness and spirituality. Leave a comment or email me a suggestion, I’m always open to hearing what other people are using to bolster their practice.

Stop blaming yourself and start living your life

Blame is so pernicious

A huge problem many of us face every day is blame. We blame ourselves for things that aren’t really our fault. Blame becomes shame, and shame becomes a more ever-lasting sense of guilt. Guilt, not just for a simple mistake that you’ve made, but a feeling of guilt just for being who you are. These feelings of guilt manifest themselves over time because small acts of blame. “Why did I make that stupid mistake?”, “How could I have been so naïve?”, “What did I expect?”, and so on. A little flicker of self-doubt and blame spirals into becoming a pervasive attitude of disliking oneself and feeling guilty.

How can we prevent this? Well, there are a few techniques we can use. They aren’t necessarily easy, especially when a feeling of guilt has entrenched itself into our psyche, but over time they will help you feel more confident and happier, and improve your self-esteem. The first thing to do is just try and notice when we blame ourselves for things, and try and put that blame in a wider context. It is important to foster an understanding that blaming ourselves for things in a way that doesn’t seem malign will snowball into a pervasive feeling of guilt. This is where mindfulness comes in: by being mindful of when we have these moments of self-blaming and self-shaming, we can acknowledge them and divorce them from how we feel about ourselves in the main.

Let’s do a little demo. Think of a time you’ve made a mistake that you’ve blamed yourself for. Start with a small mistake, because a huge mistake could be a little overwhelming. Take that mistake, and then run through the overall consequence of what that mistake was. Was it somebody dying, or losing touch with someone forever? Probably not. The consequence of your mistake, in all likelihood, was not proportional to the amount of blame you placed on yourself. If a friend of yours had made the same mistake, would you have put as much blame on them as you did on yourself?

A lot of the time, we blame ourselves because we can’t handle the idea that we are good and competent people, especially if we’ve built up a self-hating attitude towards ourselves. Huge achievements go out the window, and tiny mistakes are blown up in your mind so that they become huge errors that originate only from your own stupidity or selfishness. In other words, our minds present to us something that is not actually the case: they make your mistakes seem insurmountable and your achievements seem mediocre.

If we notice ourselves engaging in these acts of self-blame, we can change our thought patterns. We can correct ourselves by replacing our mind’s irrationality with objective truth. When you suddenly blame yourself for a mistake you’ve made, let’s imagine you forgot to run an errand your partner was relying on you for, you don’t do anything to help the situation. You make yourself stressed out, you feel worse, your self-esteem goes down, but you don’t make things any better. Instead, think about the actual consequences of your mistake: your partner might be mildly annoyed, but the errand can be run some other time. Notice your mistake, acknowledge it, and forgive yourself. Over time, you will be able to stop blaming yourself disproportionally for your mistakes and start living your life with confidence and happiness.