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Look, I get it – practicing mindfulness while dealing with mental illness or disability can be damn near impossible.
And being told to do mindfulness by well meaning people is the literal *worst*.
But what if I told you that we, as Neurodivergent folx can use mindfulness to our advantage?
It’s true! By shifting our perspectives, challenging ableist expectations within ourselves, and using ND adapted strategies we can achieve mindfulness in our own way.
Sounds great, right!? Heck yeah!
Before we jump into the strategies, first let’s get some background on what mindfulness is exactly. We’ll also look at why mindfulness is harder for some more than others. And why it’s so revolutionary to practice it as a Neurodivergent person.
*Want to know more about managing day to day tasks as a mentally ill Neurodivergent? Check out our Mental Floss series about achievable self care strategies. And if you want to know more about Neurodivergence, follow this link to our Neurodivergent Mental Health Center!
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness, or the the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something, is thousands of years old. The practice is thought to be rooted in Vedic religious traditions, what later became known as Hinduism. Later, mindfulness became a tenet of the Buddhist Eightfold Path (Right Mindedness).
Both religions used the techniques of yoga and meditation in order to become the observer in their own minds. This helped them develop a deep self awareness and, eventually, enlightenment.
Mindfulness as we know it in the West was popularized by Jon Kabat-Zinn, an American scholar and spiritual teacher who championed Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). You could say that Kabat-Zinn was the catalyst for taking a traditionally spiritual practice and morphing it into a psychology technique.
The reason why Kabat-Zinn’s method remains so popular is because mindfulness really does help with a variety of challenges. It can help soothe stress and mental illness, increase focus, and even lessen the impact of pain on the body.
All pretty cool stuff, right?
Why Mindfulness Might Be Harder To Practice For Some People
The hard truth is, both traditional mindfulness and Kabat-Zinn’s modern approach are not very accessible. Here’s why:
If you deal with a mental illness it can be difficult to get the energy to practice mindful exercises.
If you have a processing difference like ADHD or Autism, meditation might be out of reach because it’s harder for you to focus your mind.
If you’re disabled, yoga might be inaccessible to you. If you’re in poverty and experiencing mental illness, it’s a lot harder to set aside the time and money to practice mindfulness.
Bottom line, mindfulness takes work. It costs time and energy that many might not have access to.
Why Mindfulness Is So Important for Mentally Ill and Neurodivergent People
With that being said, mindfulness is an incredibly important practice that can help Neurodivergent people cope.
Meditation, yoga, and affirmations give us energy, perspective, and inner strength. All things that help us deal with severe mental illness or the challenges of being Neurodivergent in a Neurotypical world.
Being mindful can help you slow down and focus. It can even help you accept yourself and come to terms with having a different lived experience.
At its core, mindfulness offers you emotional freedom. That’s why it’s so important not to exclude ourselves from the practice. Because we deserve freedom, happiness and peace as much as anyone else.
So, back to the original conundrum. How do we access these mindfulness tools if they seem so inaccessible?
Well, there’s a ton of ways to make mindfulness work for your experience. The things is, these strategies DON’T always look like what’s expected from mindfulness. So we might not readily identify them as wellness. Further instructors and influencers might not teach them.
But before we get into those, I’m going to tell you a story. It’s about a realization I had one day near the beginning of my mindfulness journey.
It’s the story of how I *mastered meditation by screwing it the fuck up.
*okay, mastered is a loose term here. There are no masters in mindfulness, only lifelong learners.
Know that you’re going to be really bad at mindfulness – and that’s okay.
Once upon a time, I was an under an enormous amount of stress that pained me physically and mentally. Desperate for relief, I turned to meditation to quiet the obsessive worries in my mind.
Like a lot of beginners, I thought the goal of meditation was to inbox zero my mind. To completely rid myself of thought and emotion. To become one with the ether or some dumb bs like that.
But, the more I sat and listened to myself, the more I realized it was impossible to quiet my mind. I flopped my arms around like a bratty child, opening my eyes and pulling my headphones unceremoniously out of my ears. I proceeded to cuss myself for not being “good” at meditation. I was was SO annoyed.
Now, this is a pretty common experience with meditation and it’s the point where most people give up. And I almost did too.
Begrudgingly, I sat a little longer just to say I did it. I’m stubborn like that. And luckily for me hanging on just a little bit longer was what made the difference.
This time, I let my mind just chatter away without trying to control it. At this point I had given up trying.
Sometimes giving up is the right thing to do
After a minute, I felt a sense of peace come over me. Even while my worried thoughts zipped around in my head. It was as if I was somehow underneath them. Unaffected. That’s when I had a massive realization. It wasn’t about controlling or stopping my thoughts. It was about being okay with just letting the noise be without latching onto it. Learning to be comfortable with the uncomfortable.
Further, I also realized that being “bad” at meditation and losing focus so often was actually a great opportunity for growth. You see, it taught me how to recognize when my thoughts were wandering and to bring them back. Practicing that over and over helped me tremendously in everyday life. Whenever I saw my focus wandering, I found that I could reign it in much better than before.
Practicing that made me less explosively reactive, which was one of my biggest mental health issues at the time.
So you see, you have to understand that you’re going to be really bad at meditation and mindfulness. But, contrary to what we’ve all been told, being rubbish is actually a vital part of the process.
If you remember anything from this post, it’s this: next time you want to give up on mindfulness or are frustrated, lean into that feeling and see what you can learn.
Neurodivergent Strategies for Mindfulness
Okay, the moment we’ve all been waiting for! Strategies!
1. Keep Your Meditations Short and Sweet
If you’re like me, sitting on a cushion for an hour in absolute unmoving silence sounds like a special kind of hell.
But the good news is you don’t actually have to meditate for long in order to get benefits from meditation. In fact, short meditations may actually be more effective according to science. 5-10 minutes is usually all I need.
2. Use Binaural Beats to Help You Focus
There’s a ton of high frequency meditation music available on YouTube. Supposedly, music of varying hertz is supposed to activate certain centers of the brain. This makes it easier to slip into a meditative, mindful state.
Whether that’s true or not, I do know that meditative music creates a calm environment for me. And that alone helps me focus way better.
Pro tip, use headphones to keep distracting sounds out and good vibes in!
Here are a few of my favorite mindful beats from YouTube:
3. Set Your Intentions
Intention setting is an awesome (and scientifically proven) way to give your mindfulness practice some structure.
You can use intentions and/or affirmations in a few ways. First to guide your meditations, setting a goal or theme for your mind to use as an anchor. Something like, “I intend to forgive” or “I intend to find peace.” This gives your brain a mission which helps it from getting too bored and drifting off.
Or you can use intentions as you’re practicing mindfulness throughout the day. This can look like “today, I will not react in anger” or “today, I will pay attention to my breath.” This gives you something to mindfully remember when you find yourself challenged. Like an emotional life preserver to hang on to as you’re struggling.
One of the best ways to carry an intention with you is by having a pack of intention cards. Some people like to select a certain affirmation or intent based on their current emotional needs.
Others rely on the will of the universe, randomly drawing a card. Whichever you do, take the card and slip it into your pocket so you can take it out whenever you need to be a little more mindful throughout the day.
Here’s a few of my favorite intention decks available online:
4. Spice Up Your Mindfulness Routine
Neurodivergent people have a complicated relationship with routines. Some of us thrive on structure, but have a hard time keeping it up. That’s because, once the novelty of a new routine wears off, our brains get bored. When that happens, it’s almost impossible to force yourself back into it.
However, there’s something that can help you keep up with your mindfulness routine. It’s a little thing called variety!
- Don’t use the same guided meditation twice. The app Calm provides daily themed meditations with no two ever being the same. And their immense back catalog provides even more variety including soundscapes and sleep meditations.
- Practice different styles of Yoga. Did you know? there’s anywhere from 5 to 15 different styles of Yoga (depending on who you ask). There’s everything from the high impact Ashtanga style to the super gentle Kundalini. There’s literally a Yoga for everyone. So if you feel like Yoga as you know it isn’t achievable, why not check out a different style?
- Discover new mindfulness idols. There’s so many Yogis and teachers out there who specialize in bringing mindfulness to populations who have traditionally been left out. Among them are people like Jessamyn Stanley, a yoga teacher breaking the gates that keep Yoga inaccessible for fat bodies. There’s the Neurodivergent Rebel, Lyric Holmans, an Autistic writer who produces content on all things ND, including their experience with mindfulness. And there’s Sarah Sapora who’s unique perspective on mindfulness and Kundalini yoga will flip your world upside down (in a good way). And many many more!
- Create a rotating circuit of mindfulness activities. Journal and do yoga for one week. The next week start your day with a mindful prayer and a set of intentions. And so on until the end of the month when you start over again! I’ve created a downloadable planner to help you create a rotating mindfulness schedule that beats the boredom!
So there you have it! Now we know that mindfulness isn’t exclusive to those with Neurotypical brains. And that there are a ton of ways to practice being mindful even when it seems like a struggle.
One caveat to these strategies is, no two NDs or Mentally Ill people are the same. What works for me might not work for you. My suggestion is to get out there and try everything you can until you find a process that works for you.
You deserve peace just like everyone else.
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