I think everyone is prone to new fashions. Arguably some more than others. Perhaps it is part of human nature to feel a need to somehow “fit” in society. Adopting a fashion can give us that common grounding point on which to connect with other humans.
So what new fashion am I banging on about ? The latest jeans, hat, wetsuit? The latest way to organise your clothes? No, I’m talking about mindfulness.
Google mindfulness and millions of results appear. Search for mindfulness books on amazon and over 50,000 items are listed. It appears to be something a lot of people are looking for right now. Something that’s appeared on the horizon of the masses as a good thing to do………..much like swimming outside.
As with swimming outside, mindfulness isn’t a new thing. It’s been around for millennia. Largely extracted from Buddhism as a practice to help calm and focus the mind. It can often be nurtured and achieved through meditation.
There are many definitions of mindfulness, google it and you’ll see it described in many ways but this felt like the simplest explanation which sat right for me:
“Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.” mindful.org
In what’s become a busy, frantic 21st century where being constantly busy seems to be held up as a sign of success, our brains are struggling. They’re becoming overwhelmed. Without time to stop and think our brains can become a mess of tangled thoughts making it hard to concentrate and achieve the myriad things we’d like to achieve. Sometimes a feeling that what we do achieve isn’t up to the standard we’d like because we’re too distracted by the next thing on our to-do list. Sometimes it can go as far as feeling so overwhelmed that our brains just shut down and we don’t achieve anything. At least all of those things are often true for me………
We get swept away by the past and the future. What we have or haven’t achieved in the past. What we need to be achieving in the next minute, month, year, century. So much so that we don’t look at what’s going on now. We don’t enjoy the moment we’re in. Maybe that’s why we struggle to achieve what we want to achieve because we struggle to focus on the now.
Mindfulness has been held up my many as a way to help deal with this busy, overwhelmed-ness. A way to finally feel calm. That experience of focusing on now, our body, our feelings, what’s affecting us in that exact moment, helps to clear our heads of future or past worries. Parcels them off to another place. Letting go of them can help us to focus on each task in turn when we return to looking forward. It also helps us let go of those things that actually don’t really matter and relieve those overwhelming feelings. At least that’s been my experience…………
So, do I meditate? Do I practice mindfulness on a daily basis? Do I heck!
I don’t doubt that I would benefit from sitting down quietly for ten minutes and plugging myself into a mindfulness app every day. But I’m rubbish at it! I’ve managed stints of five days on the trot but I never stick to it long enough for it to become habit. I don’t know why, I can’t seem to justify plugging myself in to my phone for 10 minutes to help myself. Yet I will flick through a news webpage or social media for a completely wasted and pointless hour! I often struggle to do the things I know will help me, but I think that’s a trait common to many.
But I said a couple of paragraphs ago that I’ve experienced mindfulness. I’ve experienced the lightness in the brain it creates. So how have I experienced it if I don’t sit quietly every day?
Mindfulness doesn’t have to involve stillness, sitting cross legged in a meditation type situation (though that is a nice experience too). I find it easier and requires less effort if it forms part of a repetitive physical movement. A kind of two for one, achieving a better mental state whilst also knocking out a bit of exercise. Concentration on our most basic of functions, breathing, is an important part too.
I often experience it when I walk alone. With no-one else to look out for I can pay attention to what’s around me. See, smell, feel, hear. Birds, trees, wind, feet on the ground, rain on my coat. It doesn’t happen instantly, I still have to make an effort to turn off my busy brain and concentrate on the beauty around me. Sometimes I need to say out loud what’s been stewing in my brain first. Yes, I’m one of those people that has conversations with themselves, I always have. Other times I have to pay attention to the now to help my brain then work through those thoughts or emotions a bit later on.
But there’s somewhere better than solid ground and movement of my feet for me to achieve a state of mindfulness. Walking has myriad distractions, looking where my feet are going, so many sounds and smells, so many things to concentrate on that it can become hard to focus on those few things in turn that matter.
Where is that place?
I’ve always been happy near water. My Mum’s the same. Many people find comfort from water whether seeing, touching, being in or on it. All humans need water to survive, perhaps it is that which creates such calm for so many.
Many of my happiest moments of childhood involved water. Sprinklers in the garden, freezing cold paddling in the North Sea, my regular pool as a child. Sea kayaking as a teenager was a place I always felt so happy and content, a smile instantly on my face.
They all served to instantly distract me from whatever was worrying me. Like flicking a switch. Washing away thoughts or worries. Forcing me to focus on the here and now.
I didn’t fully realise that until recently though. The Short One bought be a book for my birthday, The Mindful Art of Wild Swimming: Reflections for Zen Seekers, by Tessa Wardley.
In her book Tessa puts into words what I already experience and have pushed for from my own immersion in water, without realising that what I was trying to achieve was a state of mindfulness. Peace, escape, repetition. By allowing my body to focus on a repetitive motion, alternating arms, forced control of my breathing, my mind can calm. It can switch off the whirring thoughts, be still and focus on the now.
My breathing pattern when I swim outside follows a stroke number, 2, 2, 3, 2, 2, 3, 2, 2, 3, 2, 2, 3. I can count and focus on just one thing. Plod, plod, plod. Gentle calm, repetition. The faint sound of splashing water through my earplugs. Murky water, green trees, brown bank as my head turns to breathe. Feeling my shoulders move, feel strong, start to relax. Turning my core on to help propel myself with a rotating corkscrew motion through the water. Gently tapping my feet together to keep my legs from splaying out. Stretching out, feeling the water hold me, hug me in its cool embrace, making me feel stronger both physically and mentally.
I can switch off, be in the moment. Much as when I walk, sometimes the feeling’s instant, sometimes it takes some time. What I do know is that I achieve it so much more easily and regularly when I swim, both inside and outside………..though outside is, without question, the best place for me.
A beautiful, peaceful space for me.
The book is all the more beautiful because it contains no pictures. No Instagram worthy beauty or glamour so often now associated with wild or outdoor swimming. There is nothing wrong with showing the beauty that is swimming but it’s often nice to create those pictures in your own mind with no external stimulus. To allow your mind room to explore and create something itself, creating that moment just for you. Her words helped me to create images in my mind. Fictional places, based on experience, that are special only to me because no-one else is party to them. True immersion in yourself. It’s why I’ve not included any images on this post too.
The book made me happy too, not because I learned something new per-se but, because it put into words what I’ve experienced and now strive for from swimming. I’ve read a few books recently that have done that. For someone who struggles with self-esteem having your thoughts, beliefs, knowledge re-affirmed by an external party is always beneficial. It gives me the confidence in my own convictions I need to make decisions and progress in life.
This is very much my own personal journey of mindfulness. I’m sure there are many who achieve this clarity of mind through sitting still or other forms of exercise. Indeed I’m sure many of my running or cycling friends will see some similarities.
Mindfulness is a wonderful tool. It’s not something I consciously looked for from swimming but it appears it’s become one of the big reasons for me to swim.
I hope if your brain is struggling, feeling overwhelmed, you can find a way to experience the now fashionable state of mindfulness. Just remember you don’t need to label it or do it because it’s the “in thing” to do. You don’t have to do it in a way prescribed by others, which is what I used to think. Your brain and body are unique to you, your way may be different to others and, much like me, you may find your mindful place by accident.