How to Use Indicators to Manage Yourself Mindfully

The whole point of mindfulness is not just to get into a relaxed state, but to develop a whole different, better experience of life. That means expanding your awareness from your breath to your whole being. 

AS YOU know by now, the first step towards solving any problem from a mindfulness perspective is awareness. What is it that you’re becoming aware of. When you start out, you learn a breathing meditation, where you put your attention on your breath. When you do that, your mind drifts. Usually a voice comes in and reminds you to put your attention on your breath. You soon realise that you have this wondering attention. Your job from then on is to become aware of when your attention has wondered and to bring it back to your breath.

So, as you can see, the breath is merely the focal point for your attention. The real point of the exercise is to become aware of your wandering mind, your wandering attention, and constantly bring it back. You manage to catch yourself more quickly each time, until it becomes second nature, not only while you’re meditating, but right throughout your daily life. This has many benefits, some of which you can read about here.

Becoming aware of yourself in daily life

The next level of application, and the whole point of mindfulness, is to become aware of yourself in your daily life, in order to be able to manage yourself better. So, for example, to become aware of when you’re experiencing an emotion, so that you don’t let the energy of that emotion carry you away, but that you rather read the message and use the energy to fuel a constructive action.

Another one would be to become aware when you’re stressed. Or to become aware of how your current low energy is because you have a decision to make.  Or to become aware of your motivational state, so that you don’t drop down into that flat, lazy state of ennui, but rather get yourself going before that happens. Another would be to become aware of when you’re acting inauthentically, so that you can correct your behaviour to one that is more honest and authentic.

In case you didn’t notice, the examples in the paragraph above cover the areas of application of the Practical Mindfulness program: firstly emotions, then stress, then decision-making, then the flow state, and finally authentic being and relating. So what you’ve seen is how being aware, which starts off with being aware of your breath, evolves into being aware of your mind—in other words, your thoughts and attention—and that naturally expands into your being aware of yourself in all these other areas of your life.

Like driving, expanded awareness becomes second nature

There can be quite a lot going on in a day, and so there’s quite a bit to be aware of. Fortunately, you don’t have to overthink it. Like driving, it becomes second nature with practice. However, when you’re starting out, it helps to break it down into sizable chunks. In our training we ask people to focus on the following four areas: being aware of your behaviours; being aware of your thoughts (cognitions); being aware of your emotions; being aware of your physical symptoms.

Your job is to move past each of these regularly, and to recognise what’s going on, to look for any area where you might be starting to get reactive. We call these your “indicators” that you’re being reactive. It’s the same as when you’re sick. A high temperature, or a headache, would be your “indicator” that you’re sick.

Try it out, using stress as the focal point

So let’s try it out, using the issue of stress. Your job is to become aware that you’re stressed, before it becomes a problem. So, what are your typical indicators that tell you when you’re stressed? You can break these up into the four categories:

  • Behaviours When you’re stressed you’re likely to notice yourself doing more or less of something. For example, eating more—especially the “bad” stuff, like sugar and other stimulants, or comfort eating—or not eating at all. Sleeping too much, or not sleeping enough—or not at all. Another behavioural indicator of being stressed is when you have some version of avoidance or procrastination, like burying yourself in reading, television or the Internet.

Some people become more irritable and aggressive. They might take it out on others—the staff, those bad drivers, a shop assistant—anybody who’s in the path. Others might withdraw, become more quiet than usual, or sleep, when the stress starts to pile up.

Exercise: Take a moment now to reflect on and, perhaps, to write down, your personal behavioural indicators that will tell you when you’re stressed. 

  • Cognitions Under high levels of stress, your thoughts may tend to become quite extreme. You’ll notice yourself having all-or-nothing thoughts, like, “I can’t” “I’m not coping at all.” “I can’t do a thing today.” “It’s too much.”

Exercise: Take a moment now to reflect on and, perhaps, to write down, your personal behavioural indicators that will tell you when you’re stressed.

  • Emotions Emotions often overlap with behaviours as stress indicators. You’ll feel more angry, and act out, or you might suppress your emotions and sleep, or bury yourself in distractions. If those distractions seem sweeter than usual, that might be an indicator!

Exercise: Take a moment now to reflect on and, perhaps, to write down, your personal behavioural indicators that will tell you when you’re stressed.

  • Physical symptoms You probably know that illness is strongly correlated to stress. There are numerous studies which indicated that stress may result in the development of gastrointestinal disorders such as peptic ulcers and ulcerative colitis, cardiovascular disorders such as hypertension or arrhythmia, respiratory disorders such as allergy, bronchial asthma or hyperventilation, musculoskeletal disorders such as lower back pain and tension headaches, and skin disorders such as acne, eczema or psoriasis.

Exercise: Take a moment now to reflect on and, perhaps, to write down, your personal behavioural indicators that will tell you when you’re stressed.

Here you can see how first of the the three key elements—being aware—can be applied to the different areas of your life: emotions, stress, decision-making, getting into the flow state, and authentic being and relating. You learn how to do that with each module in the online program, or each chapter in Section C of the book.

practical mindfulness the bookFind out more
This an adapted excerpt from the Practical Mindfulness book and online course. You’re invited to explore both options via the links provided.