The first time I’d ever heard the term mindfulness, I was participating in a trial group at a local hospital. The hospital was just beginning to introduce a DBT (Dialectical Behaviour Therapy) group for patients with mental illness, in which mindfulness is a key component.

I remember being handed a raisin and being told to move it around in my hand and squeeze it between my fingers, feeling its weight and the space it took up, before putting it inside my mouth. The idea was to become completely focused on the raisin, so focused that no other thoughts were present in your mind.

This was an interesting concept, but at the time, I did not understand how to apply mindfulness to anything other than raisins, which made it a fairly useless concept to me and my everyday life.

Ironically, I was exactly the type of person who would benefit greatly from mindfulness. My life seemed to lack something. I was not unhappy, but I wasn’t happy, either. It was difficult for me to be passionate or even care about most things.

I just wanted to get through the day.

At my job, I would frequently work through my breaks because I thought taking time to rest just made things more stressful when I came back. I dealt with feelings of anxiety on a daily basis. The best example of this was me hating Sundays.

Throughout my school-attending life, I had always hated Sundays. They were my worry day. It didn’t matter what was going on in the present; the anxiety about what was to come the following day was all I could think about. I don’t think I had a moment of peace.

As time went on, the concept of mindfulness was growing in popularity. Articles were popping up, all over magazines and the internet, about the seemingly endless benefits of the practice: eating mindfully can help you lose weight, one practice of mindfulness a day can eliminate stress and decrease depression, and mindfulness can save your job and even help your physical health.

I was very confused, as staring at raisins never did any of this for me. It felt like mindfulness was some kind of superpower I just couldn’t tap into.

More than staring at a raisin

It wasn’t until I experienced my first anxiety attack that I began to understand mindfulness. I remember lying in my bed struggling to take deep breaths, and my brain just being under attack by negative and anxious thoughts. I felt like I was going to die, unless I did something.

I went on YouTube, searched for podcasts and clicked on the first one that came up. I forced myself to listen to every word that was said. For those 45 minutes, that podcast was my gospel. If my thoughts strayed to outside worries, I would force myself to bring them back to the podcast, even repeating the words in my head at times to focus entirely.

Slowly, I began to incorporate mindfulness techniques into my everyday life. At work, I started taking my break.

After I calmed down, I realized what I had done was a form of mindfulness. I had been paying such close attention to the words of the person speaking that my body was able to physically and mentally relax. That was the first time I had ever used mindfulness without being forced to, and it worked. It felt like a wave of clarity washed over me as I finally understood the purpose of the practice.

Slowly, I began to incorporate mindfulness techniques into my everyday life. At work, I started taking my break. It turned out that leaving and resetting my brain made me more productive and happier, so when I returned, I didn’t mind having a bit more work waiting for me.

Mindfulness also helped me appreciate Sundays. Looking back, I cannot believe how many days I wasted, worrying about what was to come. My favourite day of the week is now Sunday.

To this day, I use mindfulness the most on Sundays. My anxieties about Monday still exist, but using the techniques I learned helps me appreciate the current day. I’ve realized that mindfulness is so much more than staring at a raisin.

The 5 things technique

Mindfulness is not one size fits all, it looks different on everyone. Different techniques work for different people.

One technique that I find helpful and easy to remember is called “Five Things” (as outlined below). I use this occasionally, when I feel anxious or disconnected from myself or the world around me and need to refocus. It’s based on the five senses.

  • Begin by looking around and identifying five things you can see. It’s optional as to whether you list these things out loud or just say them inside your head.
  • Once you have found your five things, move on to four things you feel. These things can be physical like the feeling of wind or the feeling of a wall, or they can be emotions you are experiencing—the purpose is to get in tune with yourself.
  • Next is listening for three things you can hear. If you find yourself in a quiet environment, the sounds may be more subtle, like white noise. Listen for a low hum or the sound of a ceiling fan rotating. If you are outdoors, perhaps the wind is blowing the leaves on a tree, or there is a car coming down the road.
  • Then there is identifying two things you can smell. If you are in a familiar place, it may be more difficult to identify these things, as we become so accustomed to certain scents that they seem to disappear. Ask yourself if there is a scent coming from you. Does your hair smell like the shampoo you used this morning? Do your clothes smell like the dryer sheets you use?
  • The last step is to identify one more thing. That one thing can be whatever you want it to be. If you wish to continue on with the five senses, it would be something you can taste. Personally, this was a hard one for me, unless I had a drink or food with me. Some other ideas are identifying one thing you are grateful for, one thing you like about yourself, one good thing that happened that day or one thing you wish to accomplish in the coming hours. I find that the last step is an opportunity to set the tone for the rest of the day, after the first four have grounded and calmed me.

A long but satisfying journey

Group of red raisins - The 5 things technique

My journey with mindfulness has been a long one, but I am happy to have gone on it. Even though I have come so far and learned so many ways to practice mindfulness, every single time I eat a raisin, I am reminded of that first day and what grew from it.

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