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Mindful reading for inner calm

Mindful reading for inner calm

Mindful reading for inner calm

These past months have been a difficult time for us all. Whatever our circumstances, we have had to deal with a great deal of change, of anxiety and of frustration over restrictions to our liberty. Alongside being patient and compassionate (for oneself and for others), our greatest tool for coping with the stress has been to be in the moment. Not dwelling on yesterday. Not fretting about tomorrow. Just breathing and being in the present time.

This practice is known as mindfulness, and it is based on traditions of Buddhists and Tibetan monks. Essentially, when we are mindful we are fully present in the moment, focusing awareness on it. We notice what we are experiencing through our senses – the rustle of leaves in the breeze, the scent of roses on the air – and we notice how we feel emotionally and what we’re thinking. Crucially, this awareness is without judgement. We just notice; we don’t react.

Although it may seem that this is how we usually live, in fact we don’t – we’re often disengaged from the moment and lost in a blur of thoughts and feelings. That’s an exhausting way to live, and it can leave us feeling overwhelmed. Mindfulness, in contrast, brings inner peace.

Studies have found that practising mindfulness has profound effects on brain functioning. According to the research, mindfulness makes you focus better, regulate feelings better, have more compassion for yourself and others, and react with less anxiety in stressful situations (i.e., you become a calmer person).

Yoga and meditation are excellent ways to develop your mindfulness, but these aren’t for everyone. Did you know that you can also practise mindfulness while reading? The key, according to the New York Times, is to read mindfully – not passively, not skim-reading, not reading while doing another activity. Tips include making time for distraction-free reading in your day, choosing a book that will really engage you, reading in print rather than on a screen, and really tuning in to the experience of reading: the feel of the book in your hand, the smell of the ink on the pages, the shapes of the letters on the page.

My writing, I have come to realise, is influenced by my own practice of mindfulness. I provide rich descriptions of settings that show how the heroine is in the moment, noticing what is around her and how she thinks and feels. Such descriptions lend themselves to mindfulness in the reader, who can find a moment’s calm as they read of someplace beautiful.

The following is a description of Lake Como: a ‘spot blessed by heaven’ as the composer Franz Liszt put it. Here, my heroine is seeing the lake for the first time as she travels across it by boat. As you read Catriona’s experience of the lake, can you have a mindful moment yourself? Give mindful reading a try:

Under bright sunlit skies the view of Lake Como was wondrous to behold. A deep sense of serenity overcame her as she stared in rapture at the expanse of blue that lay before her. The lake was the finest of mirrors, never reflecting exactly what was above, but converting it to an image so beautifully smudged and broken.

Although Catriona had been tired she found the slow and leisurely ferry ride over the lake exhilarating and almost heart-stopping in its beauty – a lyrical gouache of colour stabbed at intervals by the solemnity of the stately cypress, a tree very much native to Italy. On both sides of the boat the magnificent rocky shores were studded with the gardens of Italian belle époque villas crowded with a wealth of rare trees, exotic flowers and broad lawns, with narrow pink or mellow yellow stone staircases that went down to the edge of the lake…

Towering over all, and filling half the round of the horizon, reared the mighty Alpine chain with its base wrapped in a robe of imperial purple, flinging its countless crests towards the blue heaven like the defiant arms of the mythic Titans. In the warming rays of the afternoon sun, fragrant blooms were launching their scent on the balmy air while the boat rocked to the liquid ripple of the lake in the infinite silence.

Then suddenly, as if each of her senses was to be assailed in turn, the campaniles pealed out their morning hymn in rich and solemn melodies, each slowly uttered cadence pausing as though listening for the answer from some distant tower.

Did you see the mountains, the waters, the skies; did you smell the fragrant blooms; did you hear the bells of the campaniles? At the same time, did you notice individual words, the rhythm of a sentence, the sibilance, the curve of the C in Como?

The beauty of mindfulness is that we can all do it, anywhere, anytime; we all have the capacity to be in the moment. Reading is a wonderful way to find this awareness and calm.

I will leave you with a quotation that inspires me in my mindfulness. It is from the enlightened and compassionate Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, author of The Miracle of Mindfulness:

Life is precious as it is. All the elements for your happiness are already here. There is no need to run, strive, search, or struggle. Just be. Just being in the moment in this place is the deepest practice of meditation. Most people cannot believe that just walking as though you have nowhere to go is enough. They think that striving and competing are normal and necessary. Try practicing aimlessness for just five minutes, and you will see how happy you are during those five minutes.

Ask yourself: can you set aside five minutes today to read a book and just… be?

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