Mindfulness can help us be stillLisha Zhong

When was the last time any of us truly stopped? As a student at Cambridge, with the workloads and expectations placed within the system and perpetuated by it, it can sometimes seem like an impossible task to simply stop and be here with ourselves in the present moment. Truly stopping is not the same as a relaxing ‘distraction’ such as watching something on Netflix, or scrolling through social media – or even reading a book. Truly stopping and being still is incredibly difficult.

Mindfulness can help us be still. It is a word that has become mainstreamed, the go-to phrase and solution for life’s stresses and problems. However, many of these adaptations of the principles of mindfulness (such as the countless quick-fix tips books and physical anti-stress exercises) can miss the point. They attempt to alleviate our stresses without ever allowing us to understand the reasons why we are stressed and the root cause of our suffering. The Western approach to ‘mindfulness’ can be superficial and has become commercialized as a ‘fix all’ that can solve our stresses without ever really looking at the true causes within our environments and ourselves. Often, these commercialised methods avoid confronting the self, and the understanding that internal stillness and reflection can provide us with the answers we seek.

“The five senses are useful in bringing us into the now and out of our thoughts”

At a time when there is so much negativity on social media and in the news, I hope to make this column a small piece of calm, offering an alternative to the mainstream consensus of how we should carry out our day-to-day lives. What I write about is nothing new, the principles and messages have been passed down for thousands of years. I still have much to learn, but I hope to offer some insight into teachings that may be useful to others and may inspire you to start a journey of discovery within yourself.

The principles of mindfulness originate from Buddhism and at its core it is about being completely in the present moment bringing our awareness back to ourselves and our bodies. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk who worked with Martin Luther King during the Vietnam war to find a way to peace, is one great Buddhist teacher who has written extensively on this matter. Mindfulness is about bringing our awareness back to our bodies in the present moment and recognising that the present is all we have. How often, when eating something, does our mind think about our next essay, a deadline, some coursework or the latest trouble in the news? Our minds are constantly moving, constantly consuming and turning over information, so that often we are never actually present in the here and now. At Cambridge, the problem is exacerbated by the high workloads and preconceived notions of what people believe they ‘should’ be doing here.


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Recognising that we are thinking is the first step to practicing being in the now, in the present moment. Eckhart Tolle’s book Practicing the Power of Now addresses practically how to start living in the moment. The heavy workloads and atmosphere at Cambridge can lead to intense feelings of worry, anxiety and guilt, particularly in the run up to exams. Recognising what these emotions and feelings are and where they come from is the first step in learning to be still and let go of worry. Anxiety and guilt are derived from either what could happen in the future (such as worrying about a deadline or an exam), or what has already happened in the past (such as a bad grade in an essay or a difficult situation). If we are constantly thinking about the future, we become anxious because the future does not exist. If we are stuck in thinking about the past, we feel guilt and worry as the past also no longer exists. How do we come into the present? How do we stop our minds from running away into either the future or the past?

It all begins with coming back to our bodies through observing our thoughts and focusing on breathing. The five senses are useful in bringing us into the now and out of our thoughts. This can be as simple as being aware of the sound of bird song, or feeling the wind against your skin – is it warm? Is it cold? When you eat a snack become aware of the taste, the sensations in your mouth, if it is hot or cold, spicy or sweet. It may feel unnatural at first, but this reconnection with ourselves opens the way for dealing with the difficult emotions and feelings of worry that can arise in our busy lives. When we bring our awareness to this, to the present moment, our mind cannot run away into the future or the past, because our awareness is in this moment, which is the only moment we ever truly have. In the coming weeks, I will explore in more detail ways that can help us live more fully in the present moment.

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