Changing your mind
Last weekend I attended a family gathering and found myself chatting, as you do when you haven’t met people for a while, about what everyone has been up to over the last few years.
One of the conversations surprised me, although as I thought about it afterwards, it shouldn’t have as I’ve seen the same pattern throughout my career in health and wellbeing.
I was explaining to my cousin’s husband about the wellness walks I’ve been developing to introduce people to mindfulness and the benefits of gentle exercise and time spent in nature, while learning a little about local history and wildlife, to make it more interesting. Good for the body, mind and spirit!
I didn’t expect his immediate response to be, “Whatever you do, don’t use the word mindfulness. As soon as I hear that word, I’m out!” I could almost see his visions of shaven-headed monks in their flowing robes, chanting in the moonlight encircled by multi-coloured crystals and Himalayan sound bowls.
Now, this is not some closed-minded individual who’s never experienced anything beyond his own town or street. He’s an intelligent guy, heads a team for a big international company and travels extensively. In fact, his job revolves around data collection. That’s why I found it curious that he could be so misinformed about what mindfulness, or mindful awareness, really is.
When I thought about it, I realised I’d seen the same thing 25 years ago, when I started out as a fitness instructor. Women thought that if they lifted weights at a gym, they’d turn into men and men thought they’d turn into Greek gods or monsters!
There were very few Gyms or gym-goers in Clonmel, so public opinion was based, as it often is, on what people saw on TV. Arnold Swarzenegger, Hulk Hogan and the occasional female bodybuilder. Steroid-using, protein-stuffed, gym-obsessed extremes of what happens when wellbeing is not the motivation for exercising but a low self-esteem’s need for validation from others and control over the body.
As time passed, more people tried out the gym and saw that regular exercise and a healthy diet simply improves your energy levels, fitness levels and physique, while helping to burn off some pent-up stress. Gym use became normalised and now you see all ages and abilities attending, for various reasons.
Granted, there are some steroid users about and the gung-ho new instructors that want to turn everyone into the “best versions of themselves”, usually by torturing them with various programmes. They mean well, but just haven’t been around long enough to know that it is a marathon, not a sprint. A body has to last us a lifetime so caring for it like a vintage car makes more sense than driving it like a rally car.
Equally, when I started practicing Neuromuscular Physical Therapy 18 years ago, there were some people who would not go for a hands-on treatment. Irish men were the worst, unless they’d had some “rubs” in their sporting days. Women seemed a bit more used to having their bodies assessed and treated.
These shy men didn’t know that they could be fully treated through their clothes or that it’s a very natural, age-old form treatment – instinctually, when we have an ache or pain, we rub the area. As time passed and more sports clubs started bringing in their own therapists or sending players for treatment, it too became normalised. The misplaced ideas were replaced by experience. People realised that the treatment, like fitness training, is a tool to help us feel better and make life a bit easier.
It appears that we are at the crest of a similar wave with mindfulness and meditation. Maybe it’s the extreme practitioners and teachers, who love the limelight and often find themselves in it, that have planted incorrect notions in folk’s minds too. The gurus.
They’ll pose as well as any oiled-up bodybuilder, flexing their oneness-with-everything for all to see as they glow with divine light. Some would have you believe you can levitate or live on air alone, gaining sustenance from the cosmos. They mean well, they really do, they just lost sight of what it’s really about.
As with fitness, those that are practicing longer have a more realistic and grounded understanding of what mindfulness is and can do. It doesn’t need bells and whistles, in fact they tend to get in the way.
I’d like to add that I have absolutely nothing against chanting, crystals, bells or bowls – I’ve tried them out myself. It’s just that in my own experience, it’s the simple techniques, practiced regularly and applied in our day-to-day lives that bring the best results.
It gently trains the mind to work better in the same way that consistent, balanced exercise trains the body. Scientifically proven to physically change the brain, just like we know exercise changes our muscles. It’s all very practical really.
A fitter body feels better and can do more, with ease, than an unfit body. The mind benefits similarly as we become mentally more resilient, flexible, aware, understanding, focused and creative.
These often lead to greater contentment, better communication skills, adaptability to change, improved problem-solving capacity, balanced moods and the ability to sleep well at night. These are worth gold in the real world.
I look forward to the time when mindful awareness is normalised, a given that you would get your practice in regularly, like going for a walk or brushing your teeth. Of course, you can practice while walking or brushing your teeth but that’s an article for another day.
I saw, in my gym instructor days, how difficult it was for some to walk into the building for the first time, expecting to be surrounded by bodybuilders and elite athletes. I developed these walks in nature to remove that obstacle. There are no mirrors and no expectations, just beautiful locations with interesting stories and nice people.
It will be the curious, the open-minded and possibly the struggling who take those first steps into the “mind-gym” of mindful practice, leading the way for others to follow. The uninformed will need to change their minds figuratively before they can change their minds literally.
Wherever and whenever you decide to try it out, I hope that you are welcomed by a mindfulness guide that will take you, calmly and simply, through the steps involved and get as much from it as I have.
More on Highest Potential’s services, guided WellWalks, WellTalks, WellWorks workshops, meditations, books & prints, general health and wellness can be found on www.highestpotential.ie.