How to make life all it can be: Four points in the day to stop and be mindful

Published on: 28 October 2015

In modern life so-called ‘inspirational quotes’ and tips on how to have a better life are everywhere. For many of us their poignancy resonates briefly, then like much of the ‘chatter’ of our daily lives they fade into the ether never to be recalled again.

But what if there was a simple system, accessible to each and every one of us, that could make life better? Dr Nathan Tamblyn, Senior Lecturer in Law at the University of Exeter, might just have some advice that could – if you wanted it to – change your life.

As part of the Festival of Social Science, Nathan is organising an event called Ethics and Mindfulness: How to live well, which is an opportunity to explore how to make life all it can be, through mindfulness and an understanding of how the choices we make radically affect our experience. Here he shares some of his simple mindfulness tips.

What is mindfulness?

Nathan explained: “Mindfulness is simply being aware of what is going on around you, and especially what is happening within your mind.”

It is about realising that what you do with your mind is the cause of your emotional states. If someone says something which makes you angry, and you are not tuned into what your mind is doing, it is easy to get carried away and let that anger reaction take control.

Nathan says the key to mindfulness is to notice that feeling of anger as it arises, and instead of being carried away by it, look at it and learn something about you and the circumstance that created it. Give yourself a breathing moment; in that time you can see more clearly, and you can make a wise choice about what to do next.

Nathan said: “Nine times out of 10 the wise choice is letting go of that initial reaction. You’ve learned the message. Now proceed, not with anger, but with kindness. Now you are also in a better state of mind. And all this is good practice for responding that way next time.”

Four points in the day to be mindful

Your first cup of tea or coffee in the morning:
When you take the first sip give yourself over fully to what it feels like. Feel the heat rising up onto your face. Notice the colour of the tea. Are there any bubbles in it? Is it swirling? What does it smell like? How does it taste? Feel the liquid inside your mouth. Notice the sensations as it runs down your throat into your stomach.

Be totally mindful just for your first sip, or longer if you want to.

Getting your lunch:
Even if you eat at your desk you will probably have to fetch your lunch from the fridge or warm it in the microwave. Whilst getting your lunch be aware of each step you take. How does your body feel? Be aware of the movement of your legs and feet as they propel you forwards. Notice each thing you pass. What is happening in your peripheral vision? What can you hear? Are you able to be present as all of this information comes in without overwriting it with mental chatter?

Chopping vegetables for supper, or doing the washing up:
Often we see these as tedious chores – in which case, that is what they become. They do need to get done, but since we are doing them anyway, why make them worse with a negative attitude? Notice the shades of colour in the vegetables. How does it feel to cut through the different vegetables? Notice the soap suds on your hand. What are the sounds your activity is making? Are there any background sounds? How are you standing? What thoughts are you having? Are you looking forward to eating, or grateful for the meal just finished?

Brushing your teeth:
This is a routine activity and often your mind is elsewhere – it is ‘dead’ time. As you brush notice how you are standing. Is your weight evenly distributed across both feet? Is there more weight in one leg than the other? Are you stood upright? Have you stooped over the sink? Notice the movements of your arm brushing your teeth. How does this feel? Are you cleaning your teeth properly? Be aware of how the brush feels your mouth?What can you see around you? What can you hear? Notice the sound of the brush against your teeth.

Ultimately you want to cultivate this awareness at as many points during the day as possible, but these four are a good place to start.

Nathan said: “Ideally this is how you would live every single moment, fully engaged with life, fully alive. It comes more naturally the more you practice it.”

Why practice mindfulness?

One of the key reasons for practicing mindfulness is so you are not going through life on autopilot, missing out on the wonderful things life has to offer, or being swept along unthinkingly into negative and unhelpful emotions.

Nathan explained: “You want to be engaged in what you are doing. When you are walking around, instead of being lost in the chatter of your mind, notice what is there. This can be restorative and nurturing. See the way the sunlight glints on buildings. Notice the reflection of clouds in a puddle. Hear the noise of leaves rustling in the wind, or people bustling in the street.

“Life can be fulfilling because it is already filled full of things that are going on now. It is extraordinary, constantly changing and ever-different. Be open to that instead of living life in distracting or unhelpful mental chatter.”

Academic work

Nathan teaches mindfulness to his students and has published a book on mindfulness and academic papers relating to mindfulness and ethics.

Nathan revealed: “Mindfulness is the skill of being aware of everything that is going on, especially in your mind. Ethics is what you do with that skill, to bring about a healthier way of being.”

He added: “Ethics is this realisation that we condition our emotional wellbeing by the choices we make. Because those choices determine how we feel now, how likely we are to feel that way again next time, and whether or not we are setting ourselves up for future problems.”

Nathan has published on subjects such as whether we have a duty to give to charity, and why killing is wrong. These ethical theories, for Nathan, tie in with mindfulness because he believes that everything we do has a consequence for us, and it is up to us to decide what consequence we want.

He said: “Do we want to live a life characterised by anger, or would we rather live a life characterised by kindness? It’s not that anger is bad, sometimes it is useful. It is about making wise decisions to get you to a place where you want to be.”

Nathan’s event, Ethics and Mindfulness: How to live well, takes place on November 15 from 2:30pm to 4:30pm at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) in Exeter. Entry is free, but please register your attendance on the RAMM website.

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