When you think of mindfulness, what comes to mind?
Maybe you get glimpses into the ginormous “wellness” industry. Maybe you picture people meditating. Perhaps you associate mindfulness with movement – exercise, yoga, and so on.
I often talk about mindfulness and how much it has helped guide me on my journey with chronic illness and pain, but I know it can come across as a superficial suggestion that leaves no true guidance to those looking to embrace it.
And because of the gap, I want to share my own path towards learning mindfulness and what that actually looks like. Mindfulness is a path towards acceptance, towards growth, towards new perspectives, and towards peace, which often seem hindered when we’re navigating our journeys alongside migraine and chronic pain.
Mindfulness is something I came to learn on the yoga mat, but the practice and the mindset isn’t rolled up and left in a corner once I’m done. It’s something I learned to carry with me over a few years.
Yoga with Adriene has been my personal favorite – she has great yoga videos – but she also brings something else to the mat. Conscious reminders.
It’s little things. Listen to your breath. Pay attention to the areas of your body that are holding tension. Listen to your body, do what feels good.
She reminds us to be present when we show up for the practice. To be thankful, and to be proud of ourselves for showing up. She encourages us to release our frustrations and lingering thoughts.
I certainly don’t do yoga as much as I used to, but the lessons from practicing remain.
When we’re sick, our bodies in pain, and emotions overwhelming, having a foundation to build upon to change how we move through the world, interact with others, and speak about ourselves is a big deal.
The base of my relationship with mindfulness unites yoga and reacting to my body, and in turn listening and interpreting it. It allows my mind to prioritize rest, without lingering resentment towards what is taking a backseat while I rest. When a storm is coming in and the tension in my neck and shoulders builds up, or when I feel dizzy or nauseous, or merely foggy, I listen to my body’s response and rest.
Rest – whether we sleep or not – is restorative, and many people have commented that their quality of life is vastly improved when they are allowed to rest more.
Listening to my body also goes hand in hand with learning to release emotions and harmful thoughts. Sometimes this means pushing your mind to go elsewhere (I’ll cover this in stillness), and sometimes it means relearning and embracing new thought patterns that don’t view rest or a lack of productivity as something that is inherently bad.
In listening to my body, I can also draw conclusions about my environment and the food I eat much easier than with a journal tracking these same things. And yes, journaling does help with initial observations, but once you get into the habit you may choose to stop journaling.
I can tell my body feels and functions more comfortably when I am warm, when the lights around me are gentle, when I avoid or limit heavier foods, and when I am adequately hydrated.
As I come into each day, I make sure I stretch while my coffee brews. I tend to do a small flow through downward facing dog, cat-cow, child’s pose and then some seated twists and stretches. A small amount of movement first thing helps my body transition into the day, but also allows me to identify areas I may be holding tension from the night before. By stretching out, I’m working to reduce that tension rather than having it build up throughout the day.
Mindfulness isn’t just movement, sometimes it’s stillness.
A lot of people enjoy meditation, but I am not one of them. The idea behind it is to reach a more tranquil place, but with too many thoughts and too many areas of pain or discomfort competing for my attention, I instead choose to embrace stillness that allows my mind to focus in on something.
This is something I can do when the pain is really bad.
One way I do this is by laying down (sometimes on my acupressure mat) and listening to soft piano music. I choose a playlist that has softer piano music since the goal is tranquility. I find that my mind wanders but is able to flow with the notes and focus in on those notes, imaging them being played. Harp music has a similar effect, although I enjoy to watch videos of people playing a harp rather than just listening.
When I’m not in pain where I require a distraction, but rather moving through my day trying to remain grounded listening to music also works to keep my mind from wandering.
I’ve also found that hypnosis videos can serve as guided meditation, encouraging your body and your breathe to allow you to sink into the more relaxed state.
But finally, mindfulness extends to the boundaries I create that encourage peaceful environments and uplifting engagement.
This was the hardest aspect to implement. Creating morning routines, journaling, listening to your body, and so on are all habits that we create and practice. Establishing and enforcing boundaries is where mindfulness becomes more of a lifestyle.
Stress and conflict are the two largest factors that wear down on my health. It’s easy to let little stressors pile up, to let conflicts go unaddressed, or pretend they are unnoticed, but although our minds may be able to deceive us, our bodies still respond.
Managing them may never fully prevent us from having flares, but from my experience they can soften the impact on emotional and physical levels.
Engagement is where one of my largest boundaries exists.
It helps me decide when I can engage – I keep my phone off overnight, a bit before bed, and a bit after I get up.
It allows me to evaluate if I’m holding enough space for myself, that I can extend that space to others – you know the whole “can’t pour from an empty cup” saying.
It encourages me to give space to things that really matter. Its an active choice to get into an argument with an internet stranger. Its an active choice to give commentary on everything. The choice to not engage leaves room to hold space for meaningful conversations with those who actively choose to respect my boundaries.
And finally, boundaries around engagement allows me choose peace. To remove those who disrupt it, to give myself permission to let go of those who don’t serve me and in some cases actively work to harm me.
These boundaries extend to my home. Establishing and maintaining a peaceful environment are at the core of my constant connection to mindfulness.
This is my space to feel grounded and safe. A place to laugh. A place to dance and sing. A place to rest. A place to grow.
And to create that, I surround myself with things that bring me joy, keep me comfortable, give me purpose, and allow my mind to rest.
Of course, mindfulness goes so much deeper. There’s mindful eating. There’s choosing to be present. There’s mindful consumption. But through movement, stillness, and boundaries over the course of 4 years I’ve been able to implement a more regular state of mindfulness.
And as it relates to illness, it serves as a guide for how to best adapt and move forward, to dwell less and be more accepting.