Feature: Starting a journey to mindfulness with St Albans group class
- Credit: Picture: DANNY LOO
It is maybe somewhat ironic that I feel my life is too hectic, stressful, and jam packed to make time for meditation.
But I have heard so much about its benefits that I jumped at the chance to participate in an introductory session with Mindful Pathway - a St Albans based mindfulness course run by three experienced meditation teachers.
As a perpetually late and generally ditsy person (it’s a problem), I arrived at the class a few minutes in feeling vaguely anxious and distracted, my thoughts flitting erratically through the errands, chores and work that were exponentially piling up back at my desk.
At least everyone in the class was welcoming, including teacher and founder of Mindful Pathway, Ruth Farenga.
She explains that myths surrounding mindfulness are numerous - it is not a quick-fix tranquillity shot to magic away the stresses of life and it does not have to be spiritual.
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These skills are not hippy mumbo-jumbo, but based on real scientific facts published by neuroscientists.
“Mindfulness means paying attention to what is happening in the present moment in the mind, body and external environment, with an attitude of curiosity and kindness,” explains the Mindful Nation Report produced by the All Party Parlimentary Group into Mindfulness in 2015.
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Ruth adds that learning the skill of mindfulness is a journey in self-acceptance - realising when stressers are triggering negative thoughts but not trying to actively change the state of mind.
The class starts with a short mediation session in which we were all asked to focus on our breathing, placing a hand on the stomach to feel the diaphragm moving.
Focussing entirely on the way my body feels made me acutely aware of how sweaty I was, worried I might fall off my chair, and then agitated that maybe I was doing it all wrong.
To my surprise, this is all perfectly okay - mindfulness is simply about noticing. Let’s just hope no-one else noticed the sweat.
For the next exercise, Ruth read out statements and the group had to decide if it was ‘bliss’, a ‘stretch’, or a ‘stress’. The activities included organising a big party, swimming in the open sea, and driving down the motorway.
Maybe it says something about me (definitely does) - but I said everything was a stretch. Sounds like a really healthy state of mind, right?
Ruth then asked us to identify the thoughts that lead to those feelings. For example, worrying no-one will turn up to the party or I will be in a horrific accident on the motorway.
Despite revealing my own insecurities, Ruth is also effectively isolating the thoughts that lead to stress - which is very useful.
Next, the group write down everything they do in a typical day, before rating it as either nourishing or depleting.
Somewhat surprisingly, mine were about half and half - with a few which could be classed as both thrown in for good measure.
I’m fully getting into this now, so when it comes to finish off with a final meditation, I relax into it.
This time, it feels more immersive. The anxious knot in my stomach is dissipating and my breathing more regular. I still feel flushed and slightly uncomfortable, but I’ve accepted that is okay.
Ruth said: “Mindfulness is important because it is helping people to connect with themselves, helping them to train their mind so they get less dragged down by thoughts and feelings.
“They can observe the thoughts more and enjoy life more fully.”
She would encourage everyone to give mindfulness a go, but not to expect miracles: “Mindfulness is not about relaxing, clearing the mind, achieving some strange calm state.
“It’s more about tuning in to watch your thoughts and feelings and by watching them you are less absorbed by them.”
Ruth herself has benefitted greatly from mindfulness techniques. Seven years ago she was working in a corporate environment and suffering from anxiety, panic attacks and low-level depression.
Leaving the building and pondering what I have learned, I decide to pursue this further. The techniques Ruth teaches are simple and accessible, and I think we could all benefit from a little clarity in our own minds. I know mine can.
Mindful Pathway operate eight week courses at The Albany Centre in Victoria Street and at The Mansion House at Oaklands College. There is a taster day on September 20 - see bit.ly/OpenEvening3
Visit www.mindfulpathway.co.uk for more information.