Mindfulness has become a hot topic recently, with even British members of parliament and corporate managers taking part in mindfulness training courses. Nina Bradshaw explains mindfulness and how simple it can be.
We hear about mindfulness and it sounds like a good thing. But what exactly is mindfulness? And how can it help us to maintain mental wellbeing in our everyday life?
As a concept, mindfulness, is a form of meditation taken from Buddhism. Some people may imagine this as sitting in a Spartan room, legs contorted in the lotus position, chanting ‘ohmmm’. Others may associate the concept of meditation with hippy-dippy new age stuff. But when the ultra-conservative UK newspaper The Daily Telegraph recently ran a feature on mindfulness, it started to reach the mainstream.
we so often live life on auto-pilot
Mindfulness was first adapted from Eastern traditions by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zin, who began his Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction approach at the University of Massachusetts in the 1970’s. He, with others, went on to develop Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), to treat depression, and many others have used the concepts in various forms to treat ailments ranging from chronic pain to borderline personality disorder.
With its emphasis on paying attention in the moment, mindfulness advocates a move away from our usual automatic mode of living. We so often live life on “auto-pilot”, doing things without thinking about them, without experiencing them. Do you ever notice when you drive a familiar route that you have arrived at your destination without even noticing you were driving? This is auto-pilot. Mindfulness asks you to come out of auto-pilot and consciously pay more attention to what is going on in the here and now, taking note of what is going on moment by moment. As Jon Kabat-Zin says, ‘all we have are moments’.
Then we may ask why mindfulness is so effective in treating such a range of conditions. The idea is that, by paying attention to what is going on now, we cannot dwell on past experiences or hurts, or worry about what is going to happen in the future. With a focus on non-judgemental awareness, mindfulness asks us to acknowledge our current thoughts, feelings, sensations, pain or worries, but not to get caught up with them. This focus on curious detachment allows us to disengage from the things that are causing us concern. This is not to say that we ignore or dismiss these concerns, but we don’t engage with them in the usual way.
How is this done? The easiest mindfulness technique involves focussing on the breath. Simply allow yourself to concentrate on your breathing. Breathing slowly and noticing the breath as it goes in and out, feeling the rise and fall of the abdomen. This, in its most basic form, is all it takes to be practicing mindfulness. Every time we notice our mind losing focus, and drifting towards our normal thoughts, the aim is to acknowledge this — but not judge — and gently bring our attention back to the breath.
Another exercise is to eat a raisin ‘mindfully’. This involves taking to time to notice its particular smell, to feel its texture, to let it rest on the tongue, think about its taste, allow the time to roll it your mouth and feel how its texture is different on your tongue, slowly bite into it… And keep going, one tiny action at a time, experiencing each sensation until you’re done. Another is a body scan meditation, where you sit or lie still and consciously scan your whole body focussing on each part of the body for a few seconds in turn from your toes to the tip of you head.
In research studies, mindfulness has delivered a 20% reduction in the symptoms of anxiety and depression. In asking people to concentrate on the here and now, and not judging or engaging with our normal ‘stream of consciousness’ thinking, mindfulness can help people feel calmer and behave more compassionately towards themselves.
reduction in the symptoms of anxiety and depression
Any activity can be carried out mindfully. It is possible to do mindful walking, where you focus on and notice what is going on around you, and pay attention to the body’s movements as you walk. We can carry out simple tasks mindfully, such as mindful washing the dishes, or even mindful ironing! All it involves is paying attention to our movements, to that act of filling the washing up bowl or the iron moving over the sheets, to the sounds, the smells, the textures, heat or cold, or anything else we can be aware of in that activity alone. When your mind wanders onto anything else, don’t be critical, but gently bring it back to the here and now.
Mindfulness is certainly reaching a far wider audience than previously, and it looks set to stay around for some time. Mindfulness is a simple concept, but does require a little practice to appreciate its benefits. A ten minute breathing meditation a day over a few weeks is all it takes before a noticeable difference is experienced.
Practicing mindfulness improves mental and physical health for most people. Practiced regularly, it can reduce general stress levels and improve our interactions with others, even in difficult situations. Everyone can benefit from practicing mindfulness.
Mindful Meditation Practice
This short breathing exercise is adapted from Jon Kabat-Zin’s, Full Catastrophe Living: How to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfulness meditation to get you started. Why not give it a go?
Sit or lie in a comfortable posture. If sitting, let your shoulders drop, but keep your spine erect.
If you feel comfortable, close your eyes. Bring your attention to your body, noticing the sensations of your body as it makes contact with the chair or whatever you are lying on. Spend a few minutes noticing the sensations in your body.
Bring your attention to your abdomen, noticing as it rises and expands on the in-breath, and recedes on the out-breath.
Keep your focus on the breath, being with each in-breath for its full duration, and with each out-breath for its full duration, as if you were riding on the waves of your own breathing.
Count each breath, counting one on the in breath, and two on the out breath, until you reach a count of ten, then start back at one again.
Every time you notice your mind has wandered off the breath, notice what it was that took you away, and gently escort your attention back to your breathing.
No matter where your mind wanders to, no matter how many times your mind wanders, it could be a thousand times, simply bring it back to your focus on the breath. Being aware that your mind has wandered and gently bringing it back is as valuable as it is to remain aware of the breath.
Continue this through, counting each breath in and each breath other, reaching ten and starting again, for ten minutes. Take a moment to remain motionless, then gently return to your day.