What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is an ancient Eastern practice that is increasingly being introduced into the West due to its effectiveness in promoting positive mental health.
It helps us to avoid dissipating our energy by dwelling on the past or worrying about the future by focusing on the present. We practice mindfulness by maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and the surrounding environment.
According to Jon Kabat Zinn, Professor of Medicine at the University of Massachusetts and founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society, Mindfulness is the ability to pay attention on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally and is achieved by becoming more mindful (or aware) through practising a range of meditation exercises.Ironically time spent being mindful helps you to become less stressed and more productive. This practise is not affiliated to any religion.
Although the training is not easy – it is simple
When using mindfulness, you gradually will come to realise that although you can’t stop unsettling thoughts from arising in your mind, you can stop them from feeding off each other.
The aim of Mindfulness is not to clear your mind of all thoughts rather it is about training your attention
The Science Bit ….
Because we live in the West we need to understand how Mindfulness works…
According to Professor Mark Williams* for many years it was assumed that we all have an emotional thermostat which determines how happy we are in life.
It was always assumed that there was a set-point to which we always return. This emotional set point was presumed to be encoded in our genes or became set in stone during childhood. This would help to explain why lottery winners often within a short period of time, manage to get rid of their winnings and return to their original life before the win – even when the life was one of sadness and penury.
This viewpoint was shattered by Professors Richard Davidson and Jon Kabat-Zinn who discovered that mindfulness training allowed people to escape the gravitational pull of their emotional set-point.
Mindfulness – the inner world
In our inward lives, the mind has a tendency to ‘chatter’ and to focus on the negative. This chatter includes judging everything, comparing the way things are with the way you want them to be and striving to make things different to how they actually are. These negative thoughts then ‘piggy back’ on other negative thoughts until you find yourself in a vicious negative thinking cycle.
In one study a group of biotech workers were taught Mindfulness meditation over a period of eight weeks.
Not only did they become happier, less anxious, more energised and more engaged with their work but also maintained this perspective when exposed to slow, depressing music and memories from the past that made them feel sad. Although this does not sound that radical or permanent it is in fact these kind of small stimuli that can take us back to dwelling on bad memories or experiences.
This study suggests that Mindfulness has extremely deep-seated positive effects on the brain. Further studies have shown that as people continue to meditate over years, these positive changes alter the structure of the brain itself. Eight weeks also appears to be the critical length of time that it takes to begin the process of permanently altering the construction of the brain.
Mindfulness – the outer world
In our outward lives mindlessness (or lack of awareness) manifests as operating on autopilot rather than focusing on our actions.
Some examples of when we operate on auto pilot might be:
- When you driven somewhere and don’t remember how you got there
- Eaten a packet of biscuits without noticing
- Walked into a room and don’t know why you are there
Autopilot has benefits since it means that we are not constantly learning new habits. The drawback of this mindlessness is that we can literally ‘sleep walk’ through our lives and multi-task until we burn out.
To find out more about how mindless we can be in our daily lives, Matt Killingsworth, a researcher from the University of Harvard contacted 15,000 people during the day on their phones at random times to rate, their current happiness level, what activity they were involved at the time and whether or not their mind was wandering from the activity.
The study found that the average person spends 47% of their time in a state of mindlessness. The most significant factor was not what they were doing but whether they were being mindful and focused on the present moment. These people were significantly happier than people whose mind wandered away from the experience
Mindfulness in organisations
According to Professor Mark Williams of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre:
‘There is increasing evidence for its use in health, education, prisons and workplaces’.
Mindfulness is recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence in tandem with Cognitive Behaviour Therapy as a way to prevent the recurrence of illness for people with multiple bouts of depression. It is also a central approach in the NHS’s Health and Well Being Strategy for its staff.
An established approach to improve awareness (or develop the attention ‘muscle’) is to learn and practise a range of increasingly focused meditation exercises. These exercises involve observation without criticism, during a range of ‘tried and tested’ mindfulness techniques, which vary in intensity.
I don’t believe that anyone would claim to be completely mindful since we all have a tendency to allow our mind to wander but in practicing the techniques the awareness of our mind becomes cultivated and our consciousness unfolds and deepens over time.
Some benefits you could expect from developing Mindfulness
If you start to practice Mindfulness some benefits you could expect to gain include:
- Feeling more relaxed and centred
- Being able to deal with life’s challenges in a more calm and logical manner
- Improved concentration, memory and creativity
- Feeling more confident and in control
- Experiencing a better quality of sleep
- Having greater kindness and compassion towards yourself and others
- Being ‘easier to be around’
Mindfulness and you
We confuse the mind’s thoughts with reality and we identify ourselves far too closely with our minds.
Mindfulness is a discipline to start noticing all these thoughts and gently bringing your focus back to your breath. The key is to find an approach, which works for you and to practice the techniques regularly by setting aside a few minutes each day to integrate your practice into your daily life. It is also important to realise that it is a way of being rather than a good idea or a clever technique
There has been an explosion of ‘Mindfulness’ in the media over the last 10 years and the internet is full of millions of resources, courses and mindful colouring, much of it free. Ironically this only serves to confuse the issue. However there are in fact a number of ‘core’ practices that crop up time and time again and can be considered to be central tools of the Mindfulness approach. These are:
- Breath and body
- Body scan
- Mindful movement
- Mindful listening
- Mindful silence
What to expect when you meditate
First of all your attention will wander away from the breath. Thoughts, images, plans, or daydreams may come up. Mind wandering is not a mistake – it is simply what a mind does. When you notice that your awareness is no longer on your breath – congratulate yourself since you have already ‘woken up’ enough to know it. Acknowledge where the mind has wandered to then gently bring your attention back to your sensation in your abdomen.
When the mind wanders again – as it will – simply note where the mind has been then gently bring your attention back to your breath. This can be very difficult as you may find it frustrating that the mind seems so disobedient. Notice any resistance to letting go or a continuing wish to engage with your thoughts
Each time this happens just bring it back to where it should be, regard repeated wanderings of the mind as opportunities to nurture greater patience within yourself. The intention is simply to be aware of your experience in each moment.
As best you can, use the sensations in your body and breath as anchors to gently reconnect with the here and now each time you notice that your mind has wandered. Over time if you keep on practising you will begin to ‘see’ your thought stream in action. You might find it helpful to silently give your thoughts names like – ‘here’s thinking’, ‘here’s worrying’, ‘here’s planning’ before returning your awareness back to your breath
In doing this you have taken your first step towards greater awareness.
From my own experience the moment you calm your ‘inner’ life you start to create ‘new grooves’ in your brain and reduce the constant negativity, which can live there. Once the inner world is calmed the outer world almost automatically calms too
You will notice that things that used to stress you no longer do and things that are stressful you take more in your stride. You will also become ‘easier to be around’
* Mindfulness – Finding Peace in a Frantic World, Mark Williams and Danny Penman
With thanks to Jo Grant and Stella Pitman for permission to use their photographs in this blog
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