There are all kinds of shipping industry initiatives which try to make life at sea better. There are those which focus on seafarer happiness, there is “wellness at sea” and all kinds of other attempts to make the lot of crew better. A new trend taking hold though, and it could just change the way people live, work and exist onboard ships…welcome to maritime mindfulness.
PROBLEM OR SOLUTION
You have just arrived on your latest ship, your first time onboard. It’s quite new, nice enough accommodation, and all seems well. There are a couple of people you have sailed with before. You’ve unpacked, checked how your bunk feels, done your familiarisation and are ready to go find out what is going on.
You are taking everything in – there’s the TV room, the gym looks small and smells odd, you are keen to find out more, to catch up with the people you know, and looking forward to meeting those you don’t. The ship has good internet and onboard entertainment, even movies (thanks KVH), so it seems like a good trip awaits. All seems well – then suddenly its three months later, you haven’t done any of the reading or studying you promised yourself you would. You have let the time simply pass you by.
You didn’t get back to the gym – your waist has grown fatter but your hair thinner. You are stressed and never did bother with the hassle of getting ashore – after all the taxi was expensive, and you had been there before. You haven’t slept enough, the pressures of the company and the Chief Mate have both really got under your skin. That itch on your forehead won’t go away, and you are irritable.
All in all a bad time, and now you are just waiting to get off the ship, eager to get home. Perhaps this is a pattern for many people going to sea – and maybe it is time to try and different approach? One which may seem like nonsense, but which if given a chance could just make a difference. The technique is maritime “mindfulness”.
WHAT IS THAT?
Just what is “mindfulness”? The media have been eager to report its effects for the past couple of years, and all kinds of new age gurus have popped up saying how it can change your life. But can it and how?
Well, mindfulness is a very simple form of meditation. It is a way of paying attention to, and seeing clearly whatever is happening in our lives but without criticism. It is about paying attention, not getting stressed, angry or anxious. Granted that sounds easier said than done, but let’s at least find out more.
As seafarers, practicing mindfulness will not eliminate life’s pressures, but it can help us respond to them in a calmer manner that benefits our heart, head, and body. A good example would be to think of an airport security line – you can either become tense, stressed and frustrated, or you can shrug and allow people to get on with their jobs, and you can get through it as quickly as possible.
Think of the challenges in life like that security line. You have no choice about many of the things facing you, so you best find the ways of engaging positively, and of not allowing negatives to weigh you down. Let’s explain more…
PRESENT AND CORRECT
Have you ever started eating a snack, taken a couple of bites– then suddenly you find it is empty. It has all gone and you barely noticed it – just an empty wrapper remains. What about driving somewhere, and then don’t remember the journey? There are so many things in life we deal with through “mindlessness,” or “going on automatic pilot.”
In a life where we multitask it is all too easy to lose awareness of the present moment. Juggling the demands of work, home, finances, and other conflicting realities – the mind tries to switch the processing power by allowing us to do whatever we can as automatically as possible.
Worry, stress, anxiousness, fear, frustration – these are some of the deepest seated human emotions – so the brain is wired to give them priority. As our ancient ancestors had to listen to their fears and give them priority– “ooh look a dangerous wild animal”. We are fundamentally worrisome creatures.
In our modern lives, this means that all too often humans are “not present” in our own lives. We give in to the negative, and suddenly the bad emotions win out. We get stressed, we suffer fatigue and our mental health suffers. At sea these aspects of life are sadly all too common – so surely we need to try something different. Mindfulness could just be the answer.
No-one suggests that suddenly deciding to look on the brightside is easy – it’s not. It requires effort and discipline. Slowly though, if we begin to just take notice of small positives. If we do things which help us to cope, or to feel happy – just small changes begin to have a massive effect.
Life at sea is tough, there are challenges, and a whole host of potential negatives. But are we allowing ourselves to notice the good things about our lives? The answer is often no, and that is increasingly damaging.
In taking a deep breath, and learning how to control our responses to negativity. We can perhaps stop our minds thinking they need to zone out of tasks. We can enjoy the small things, and be mindful of them. We can enjoy that cup of coffee, that sunset, smile at the dolphins, the scent of a hard working engineer or get excited about visiting places again.
Becoming mindful helps to show and give a route away from habitual, often unconscious emotional and physiological reactions to everyday events. Developing an approach to cultivating clarity, insight, and understanding can help massively, and can boost mental health and wellbeing.
STUFF GOT REAL
Over the past few years many clinical trials involving thousands of participants have suggested that mindfulness, and focusing the mind on the present moment, produces measurable improvements of up to 20% in symptoms of anxiety and depression.
While NICE (National Institute for Clinical Excellence) backs it as a treatment for those with recurring depression; indeed, it has been proven to reduce the recurrence rate by 40-50 per cent over 12 months.
Employers as varied as the US Army, Google, PWC and the UK Home Office are taking it seriously and have started offering mindfulness training for employees; schools too are incorporating it into the curriculum. This is seen as a serious solution to a very real problem.
So what can you do to become more mindful? Well that is the hard part – especially for the more macho within the maritime workforce. It involves becoming more aware of thoughts, feelings and sensations. In essence, mindfulness allows you to catch negative thought patterns before they send you into a downward spiral. It begins the process of putting you back in control of your life. A tough ask, but one which can bring amazing results.
TIPS FOR MINDFULNESS
1. Get out of bed and stretch. Whatever watch you are on – whatever time the phone has rung, always try and have that little bit of a regime. Get comfy with stretching it all out.
2. Brush your teeth. No, really brush. Focus. No autopilot for you – feel every tooth, count the strokes. Get involved in the process.
3. Eat mindfully. It may be easier on ships with a good cook – but try and take the time to carefully eat. It is a time of fuelling your mind as well as your body. Relax and enjoy the chow.
4. Make a brew. No need for some ancient tea ceremony, but enjoy it. Care about it. Take the time, smell the coffee – literally and metaphorically.
5. Exercise. Not necessarily pounding or pumping in the gym. Take a stroll on deck, again that stretching thing. Think about what your body needs and do it.
7. Read. Time is a luxury at sea. When you aren’t eating, working or sleeping there seems to be little time for anything else. But if you can just build a little reading into your schedule. Quiet, focused, reading. Your mind wants to forget your woes, so let it, take it to fantasy or fill it with knowledge instead of just worrying and moaning.
8. Be Grateful. It may be tough, you feel home sick or fed up, bored and tired. Don’t give into the feelings, you don’t have to always feel the negative. Be thankful, and that will help you become mindful.
9. Work with focus. Kick start that professionalism which may have faded or become jaded. Care about what you do. If things frustrate you or are wrong set about changing them, think about your actions. You can make a difference in your work.
Let us know what you think about mindfulness and whether these things can make you feel happier about your life at sea. We hope they do.