Written by Carol Tobin

Health

Mindfulness: Be Here Now

When Carol Tobin’s GP first suggested she skip the medication and try the meditation she laughed. Now, in Mental Health Awareness Week, she wants to share what she’s learned.

Peaceful forest scene

I’ll never forget where I was when I first heard about mindfulness. I was in my GP’s office wearing a scratchy purple polo-neck, desperately trying to persuade him to give me narcotics. I was insanely stressed and I hadn’t slept for two nights. The end of my tether was visible to my naked eyes. I needed something to nudge me into a slumber, a few tablets to give me a break from the binge-thinking preventing me from sleeping.

“Carol, I’m going to prescribe some mindfulness,” the doctor said. I’d never heard of that medicine before, but I was relieved something was coming my way. “Can you drink with that?” I replied. He laughed, a laugh that consumed his whole body. When he stopped, he explained what mindfulness was, and that’s when I laughed.

For those of you who have never found themselves in a distressed state in the self-help section of your local bookstore, Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the leading experts in this area, describes mindfulness as “awareness that arises through paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”

“Mindfulness sounded like some sort of crappy time machine, transporting you from either your past or future to the present.”

When my doctor explained this to me in his own words, I actually thought he was taking the piss. The sleep deprivation-related paranoia wasn’t helping. After he elaborated on his prescription, I replied: “Let me get this straight, Doctor, you want me to be present? You want me to be here in this moment, the one where you’re not giving me any sleepers even though I’m on the verge of many things?”

I left his surgery drugless and in disbelief. Mindfulness sounded like some sort of crappy time machine, transporting you from either your past or future to the present. I wanted to be anywhere but the present, preferably asleep having dreams about pizza and the Dad from Little House on the Prairie.

I laughed all the way home at what had just happened – the type of giggles I imagine I’d have if I was ever kidnapped and my captor had just told me my parents weren’t coming up with the very small ransom. It must have tired me out because when I got home I slept. Somewhat revived after this much-needed nap, I started researching mindfulness. I did respect my doctor, so I had to give his remedy a chance.

The more I explored this practice of being in the moment, the more it started to make sense. How often are we actually present? We are usually ruminating over bygone days or anxious about what’s up ahead, two places we have no power over. A research paper from Harvard said our mind is lost in thought 47% of the time, which is a pretty grim statistic when you think of it. Take sex, for example: how different would that be if we were actually present and we weren’t lost in thoughts about beekeeping or how the toaster was invented.

I read numerous articles and books on mindfulness and dabbled in it here and there. But it wasn’t until I started using the mindful meditation app Headspace that I actually started seeing the benefits and took the practice more seriously.

“I would get so lost in thoughts that loved ones would have to send a search party. Now, most of the time, I can observe my feelings instead of being swept away by them.”

Sheer desperation brought me to that app. My mind was hampering my ability to get my shit together, so I dedicated time to it every morning. I’ve been using it for well over a year and it wasn’t until life threw something extremely stressful my way recently that I realised how much it had worked. I didn’t get hijacked by my emotions and was able to deal with the situation better. This meditation and mindfulness itself are not a quick fix like the Valium I was partial to, but I could tell that my persistence and dedication to using the app every morning was already paying off.

Mindfulness has made an enormous difference to the state of my mind. In the past, lots of my feelings were not consistent with actual events. I used to burn all my calories by sweating the small stuff, jumping to conclusions and running from the past. I would get so lost in thoughts that loved ones would have to send a search party. Now, most of the time, I can observe my feelings instead of being swept away by them.

When you start being mindful, you realise just how much of your life is spent on autopilot or distracted. When challenging thoughts arose in the past, I would either self-medicate or distract myself, hoping that they would go away. I’ve spent a lot of my existence lost in thought. There are huge chunks of my life I don’t remember, whole relationships I have no recollection of because I simply was not present.

I don’t know how many times I’ve been mid-conversation with friends and felt terrified they’ll suddenly start quizzing me on what they were just saying. “So Carol, what did I just tell you there about my holiday?” To which I’d have to reply, “Sorry, I was just thinking of my dog Toby, who died when I was eight.”

Just today I was jogging past my neighbour’s attention-deprived son and he started commenting loudly on how my running reminds him of a flailing ostrich. Instead of letting my mind get hijacked by insecure thoughts, I became mindful and engaged with my senses. The feeling of the gentle breeze on my face, the smell of freshly cut grass and the taste of the dead fly that made its way into my mouth when my jaw dropped. I jogged on and didn’t let it ruin my day like I might have before.

There are numerous benefits to mindfulness. I use it for stress reduction and to keep my depression at bay. I’ve also noticed it helps hugely with creativity and focus. It’s helped my sleeping immensely. It’s good for pain management. When regularly applied it can even improve your immune system. If you practice mindful eating, it can help with weight-loss. It makes you more self-aware. It can prevent Fear of Missing Out. Music sounds better with it. Views are more picturesque. Taco fries are tastier. The one time in life I can’t be mindful, however, is when I’m hungover, because I am just too lost in thought about pizza and the Dad from Little House On the Prairie

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Written by Carol Tobin

Tormented writer and comedian Carol Tobin prefers wielding a pen instead of a sword in her battles with her demons. @carolgertrude