The concept of mindfulness entered everyone’s vocabulary around about the same time as wellness became part of our everyday conversation.
Mindfulness is described as ‘a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique’.
It’s certainly not a new idea. The practice of mindfulness has its origin in the contemplative traditions of the East, in particular Buddhism, and has been practiced for millennia. We’ve seen it integrated into accepted therapies, such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) over the past decades, because it is so effective.
Who should be mindful?
Absolutely anyone – regardless of age.
It may be that mindfulness is not for you, and it’s important to remember that it certainly isn’t the answer to everything. But we all have the capacity to be more ‘present’ in our lives. It doesn’t change who we are, but it can benefit us in many ways.
And it’s not necessary to buy into the spiritual or psychological aspects of the above. This is a simple, cost-free practice that each and every one of us can do on a day-to-day basis for our mental and physical health. It has been proven to help reduce stress and alleviate depression. Research has also shown that it can have a positive effect on whole-body health. Which is why it’s said that ‘meditation is the best medication’.
So what IS mindfulness?
Professor Mark Williams, a former director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, says that “mindfulness means knowing directly what is going on inside and outside ourselves, moment by moment”.
So one important part of mindfulness is connecting with our bodies, while another is an awareness of our thoughts and feelings in each moment.
This is especially important in our modern lives. Where our busy minds are constantly abuzz with to-do lists, anxiety, planning, anticipating, and stressing about the past, which sometimes threatens to consume us. We need to check in on a daily basis with what is going on right now in ourselves. If we take a step back from the stuff that goes on in our heads. We can begin to recognise patterns in our thoughts and find creative and productive ways of dealing with issues.
The goal of mindfulness is to see the present moment with perfect clarity. When we begin to see the world in this way, we understand ourselves better, we are able to experience things with a fresh viewpoint. Even things were previously taken for granted, and ultimately, change the way we see ourselves and our life situation.
While mindfulness is clearly great for reducing stress, it’s not the only benefit.
Professional athletes make use of mindfulness to help them achieve peak performance, while mindfulness can boost creativity, whether it’s writing, painting or playing a musical instrument.
It’s even entering the corporate world, where companies are hosting mindfulness meditation sessions. This helps alleviate staff stress and boost creativity of employees, from clerks to CEOs.
When we train our brain by using mindfulness, we are building new neural pathways and strengthening those that are there, which means better concentration and more flexible thought.
Drink Your Tea
“Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis
on which the world earth revolves
– slowly, evenly, without
rushing toward the future;
Live the actual moment.
Only this moment is life.”
-Thich Nhat Hanh
So how can I be more mindful?
- The first step would be to remind yourself each day to take active note of the world around you. What is happening in your body, and your thoughts and feelings.
- Do you notice the food you eat? Focusing on your meal and the reaction of your body as you eat interrupts the almost ‘autopilot’ approach most of us have to daily life (and we’ll probably eat less as we’re not shovelling food mindlessly). Noticing the sensations of our lives can help us to have a clearer, and sometimes different, perspective.
- It’s important to note that mindfulness is not about making all the bad stuff go away. Rather, each thought, even the bad ones, is seen as an event which, once acknowledged, and even named, can be put in its proper place, or got rid of entirely.
- So, instead of lying awake worrying about tomorrow, taking time to focus on the moment. Your breathing, your heart beating – sounds around you – the temperature – the feel of your bedclothes, etc. – can start the process of ‘remodelling your brain’.
- Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), says that when we practice mindfulness, certain parts of the brain ‘light up’. This doesn’t happen when we’re in an ‘autopilot’ state.
Just focusing on the present moment is a good start, but it’s a good idea to set aside some time for meditation.
How do I meditate?
There are meditation coaches who will guide you through a meditation process, but you can do a simple meditation at home. This meditation focuses on breathing – we all breathe – so no extra equipment is required.
- Find a spot where you can sit comfortably. In a chair or on the floor.
- Notice what your legs are doing. If you’re sitting on a chair, notice the connection of your feet to the ground.
- Straighten your upper body (in a relaxed way) and be aware of the natural curve of your spine.
- Notice what your arms are doing – rest the palms of your hands on your legs wherever they feel most comfortable.
- Drop your chin slightly. You can close your eyes if it feels comfortable to do so, but it’s not essential.
- Become aware of the physical sensation of breathing. Each time your mind becomes full of thoughts, acknowledge the thought and go back to an awareness of your breathing. Don’t judge your thoughts, or yourself. Just accept each thought as it pops in to your mind and return to your breathing.
- When you feel ready, open your eyes or lift your chin. Take a moment to focus on your environment and become aware of sounds and smells. Take stock of how your body feels and what you’re thinking and feeling.
The first time you try meditation, you may not manage it for very long. If you try this meditation, you may only manage to focus back on your breathing once or twice. Don’t judge yourself. Just notice the thought and go back to focusing. As you practice, though, you will find that it gets easier each time.
If you need more support, Sue Cooper, a clinical psychologist who offers retreats around South Africa as well as courses integrating Buddhist meditation and psychology, offers very useful meditations and helpful information.
Apps on your phone such as Calm, Headspace and Insight Timer also introduce you to guided meditations of different lengths.
Now, how about taking a moment?