Mindfulness in a nutshell
Have you ever come across a raisin, strawberry or chocolate meditation?
Mindfulness has become quite a buzzword recently. If you've been on a course or read a book on the subject you may well have tried a mindful eating exercise. But what is the relevance of such an exercise to our day to day lives?
Here is a seasonal example of a mindful eating meditation (those with nut allergies could substitute by peeling a tangerine):
Take a walnut and some nutcrackers. Hold the walnut in your hand. Imagine that you are a curious alien on an exploratory mission from another planet. You have never encountered anything like this.
Look at it carefully. What does it look like? Notice it’s colour, it’s surface patterns, its shape and size.
What does it feel like? Explore it’s texture, it’s hardness, it’s weight, it’s temperature.
What does it sound like when you tap it on a surface?
Hold it beneath your nose. Does it have a smell? If very little or no smell notice this as well.
Pick up the nutcrackers. Notice how your arm, hand and fingers know what to do. Notice the pressure you need to apply to crack the nut. Notice how your body, and the nutshell, react to this procedure. What does the shell sound like when it cracks?
Separate the nut out from the shell. Hold the nut in your hand and repeat the steps above.
Place it in your mouth. Explore the sensations of having it in your mouth. Now explore it with your tongue. Notice any textures and tastes. Notice your reactions. Notice any intentions such as wanting to bite.
Now take a bite and notice any textures and tastes. Notice your reactions.
Next, follow the sensations as you swallow the chewed nut.
Is there an aftertaste? What’s happening in your mouth now? Do you instinctively anticipate another nut?
This takes the experience of eating a nut to a whole new level. But what are these exercises trying to tell us in the broader scheme of things? Here are some key messages:
The exercise encourages you to focus all your attention on your experience in the here-and-now. By contrast, have you ever driven somewhere familiar in your car and had no recollection whatsoever of the journey? You were on autopilot. You may have been mulling over the past, worrying about the future or entrenched in other unhelpful patterns of thinking. The things we do in autopilot can impact on our emotions and anxiety levels without us even realising. It may sound clichéd but can you practice living more in the moment?
In the meditation you were encouraged to hone in on your reactions to the walnut. But how aware are you of your inner emotions, sensations and responses in your everyday life, as they happen? We often find ourselves caught in vicious circles, repeating unhelpful patterns of behaviour or ending up in familiar undesirable situations. Being more aware of how you react to people and events in your life might help you to understand how you get stuck.
As the alien in the exercise you had just landed on earth. You had no preconceptions. You were encouraged to explore the walnut, and your experience of it, with curiosity and without judgement. By contrast, in 'real life' we make many associations. We are often afraid of strong emotions, including anxiety and depression, or frightened by our physical sensations e.g. a racing heart. We might label them as ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ or feel ashamed of them. We may try to push them away, deny them or distract ourselves. These reactions can worsen the discomfort or distress that we feel. Instead, could you sit with the difficult feelings/sensations without trying to label or change them? Some people find that when they can take a more objective look within and say “This is how I’m feeling at the moment and it’s okay to feel like this” the strong emotion or sensation loses its power.
This may all sound very idealistic. We aren’t aliens, or robots! But mindfulness invites us to incorporate some ancient eastern wisdom into our lives and the mindful cracking of a walnut can be a powerful metaphor.