In this Covid-19 pandemic we are well aware that there are many people feeling worried, stressed and perhaps isolated. So it was a pleasure to welcome Dr Russ Hargreaves to talk to us about mindfulness - a technique that many may find useful to learn.
Russ is head of wellbeing at Ellenor, a hospice based in Gravesend; having lived and worked in London for a number of years, he now lives in Canterbury. We were very pleased that Russ could join us during his lunch break - straight from the wards at the hospice. It was our first Zoom meeting with an external presenter, so we were delighted that the meeting was "packed" with Rotarians (plus some partners too).
One of Russ's many roles in his day-to-day work is that of a counsellor, which in his case means that he spends a lot of time supporting people with difficult health issues. Mindfulness is a tool that he uses regularly with such individuals with great success.
Although many of us had heard of mindfulness we didn't really know what it meant, so it was useful to have Russ talk through it with us. He explained that although many people think of mindfulness as a form of meditation, it isn't really the same. In fact, he assured us, mindfulness is "much more than that". He told us that the technique is very handy when people are feeling out of control as it helps to "centre" or "ground" them.
Russ explained that mindfulness is particularly useful when people are worried about the future; for instance, in the current situation people may be worried about the lockdown, they may be worried about their own health or that of their family members, they may be worried about work-related issues. In other instances, mindfulness can help those who dwell too much on the past, for instance, people with various "if only I'd done this or that" playing in their head. He reminded us all that the "safest place" for most people is in the here and now (i.e. the present); this, it seems, is at the core of mindfulness.
Russ then asked us all to take part in a mindfulness exercise where we engage with our five senses - i.e. what we see, hear, taste, touch and smell. Apparently, although we all use these senses all the time, we often take them for granted and don't really take much notice of them.
First, Russ reminded us that most of us were in a place of security, warmth and safety and that none of us were under any immediate, direct threat. He said it was important to acknowledge this, as this immediate environment is something we do usually have some control over.
Russ then asked us to look around at our surroundings, observing things around us such as items in the room, things outside the window, the weather. Next, he got us to think about what we could taste, asking us to spend some time really noticing that. He then asked us to listen carefully to what we could hear (pausing for a moment to let us do so). For instance, he said, we might hear a clock tick, traffic move, or birds sing. Focusing on these makes us focus on "where we are now", in "the present". Next Russ asked us what we could smell - perhaps the smell of coffee or some fragranced spray? He told us that using all the senses helps to focus the mind on "this moment". Russ told us this was a very useful exercise and suggested we try doing it from time to time, wherever we are.
Russ then moved onto the second exercise of his talk - something called "the mindfulness of breathing." Basically, this is a simple, relaxing form of meditation that can also be practised anywhere - even sitting on a bus! (Though Russ did warn us not to do it in bed as it might make us fall asleep.)
Russ told us that, like our senses, breathing is something we all take for granted, often doing it without thinking about it at all. In this exercise, Russ wanted us to think about the breath that comes into our body when we breathe in, and the breath that leaves our body when we breathe out.
The exercise required a series of actions. First of all, we were to position ourselves correctly. We were asked to close our eyes, place our feet firmly on the floor (ideally not cross-legged), get comfortable in our chairs, place our hands on our laps or on the arms of our chair (whichever felt most comfortable and supported). We were to relax our body as much as possible.
Next, Russ asked us to do a stepwise "body scan". This process, Russ told us, draws our attention to our own body. Russ checked that we were all totally relaxed and still had our eyes closed before asking us to focus on different parts of our body. We started with our feet, wiggling our toes and getting a sense of where our feet are. Russ asked us to think about how our feet felt - were they hot or cold? Did they feel comfortable - or was there any pain? He then asked us to slowly "move" up through our body, from our feet and toes to our ankles (again, we were to think about how they felt and to give them a little wiggle). From our ankles we were to travel up with our mind's eye - "going" slowly along our shins and calf muscles (ensuring that they felt fully relaxed), up to our knees. If we felt discomfort or pain at any body part, we were to just acknowledge the discomfort/pain and note the sensations it caused, but not to actually "do" anything. We were to then continue to work up through our spine, thinking of the rise and fall of our chest (and perhaps stomach) as we took our breaths. Russ asked us to let our arms feel nice and loose as we continued our "journey" upwards. On reaching our head we were to see if we could notice any sensations - for example, in our scalp. We were to think about how tense our face felt and to try and let go of some of that tension,
This preliminary body scan, Russ told us, should lead to a state of feeling relaxed and grounded. He suggested that we spend 5-10 minutes doing this body scan before starting the meditation proper. For this we first needed to breath normally (via our nose or mouth, whatever was normal for us) for several breaths. Russ then wanted us to count all the breaths we were taking in (i.e. inhale-one/breathe out; inhale-two/breathe out; and so on) until we'd reached a count of ten. Then we were to go back to counting breaths from one up to ten again; engaging again with sensations - could we feel the hairs in our nose, was the air cold or warm?
Russ told us this counting helps keep a level of alertness so that we don't drift off to sleep (a hard task for those of us that had just enjoyed a nice lunch). Normally, he told us, we should continue the counting for another 5 minutes or so (using a timer or app at home if we so wished).
We then needed to swap to counting each exhalation in the same way. This "exhalation count" was to be done for another 5 minutes.
The final stage of the meditation was to return to normal breathing, just sensing each breath. If we found our mind began wondering at this stage, we were to start to count again.
Russ told us that this whole process helps our body relax - in fact Russ told us that this was a good meditation to carry out if we wake up suddenly at night with a sense of anxiety.
Having completed the above two exercises - the senses and the breathing - Russ suggested we combine these to help us whenever we felt stressed or anxious. He then drew his talk to and end by talking about the various apps that are available to people who have smart phones or tablets, and also reminding us that there are many youtube videos, often of very good quality, that are available to people to help with mindfulness.
Finally, Russ answered a round of questions from the (now very relaxed) audience before being thanked by "host", Rotarian Julie Reza, and being give a round of virtual applause by audience members on Zoom.
If you're interested in seeing a youtube video on mindfulness from Russ (done for Ellenor), click here.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has also produced an illustrated guide titled "Doing What Matters in Times of Stress" which it says "aims to equip people with practical skills to help cope with stress. A few minutes each day are enough to practice the self-help techniques. The guide can be used alone or with the accompanying audio exercises." This guide can be downloaded (free) as a PDF here.
Picture: Dr Russ Hargreaves. Picture credit: Russ Hargreaves/Ellenor (with permission).