In recent years ‘mindfulness’ has crept increasingly into public consciousness. It has been widely championed as an effective approach for managing the stresses of modern day living, and the benefits of being mindful are talked of at length on television, radio and in newspapers and magazines. However, despite this, to most people mindfulness is still something that remains misunderstood and untried.
Although it may seem like a recent phenomenon, mindfulness has in fact been around for longer than many people realise. It dates back to the work of American Professsor Jon Kabat-Zinn, who in the late 1970s founded a stress reduction programme known as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). In the intervening years, there has been extensive scientific research into the effectiveness of mindfulness, with studies providing strong evidence that regular practice can lead to a range of benefits for practitioners, such as reduced anxiety, better concentration, improved memory function and enhanced mood.
Indeed, in the treatment of people with mental health issues, there is a drive within the medical community to encourage mindfulness techniques in place of drug therapies.
There is massive potential for industry too. Employers who encourage mindfulness among their workforce can reap many benefits, among them reduced absence, lower levels of stress, increased morale and enhanced productivity.
So what is mindfulness and how does it work?
Put simply, mindfulness is a mental state whereby thinking is focused entirely on the present moment. This is achieved by concentrating the mind on what is happening right now, rather than thinking about the past or the future. As thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations come up, they are acknowledged and accepted, before calmly being allowed to drift from consciousness.
A key outcome of mindfulness is the realisation that ‘you are not your thoughts.’ Thoughts are transient and will just come and go, so they are not the whole person. This is really powerful for people experiencing a lot of negative and potentially self harming thoughts. Through the heightened self-awareness that can be developed through mindfulness, it is possible to ‘catch’ thoughts as they come up and then make rational choices about whether or not to act on them. In essence, this means taking back control of your mind when it feels like your thoughts are running away from you.
It is this practice of being better able to control your thoughts that is the strongest benefit for people who experience anxiety. Feeling stressed and anxious is normally due to either worrying about what has happened in the past, or apprehension about what may occur in the future. Being able to train your mind to bring thoughts back to the present can help to alleviate this type of potentially life inhibiting anxiety.
How do I practice mindfulness?
There are a number of ways to incorporate mindful thinking and practice into day to day life, with some small changes potentially providing exponentially larger benefits. At the heart of mindfulness though is the practice of mindfulness meditation.
This is where mindfulness links back thousands of years to the teachings of Buddhism, which emphasises the importance of Dhyana, or meditation, which is a practice where the mind’s attention is focussed on one specific occurrence, such as the breath or a particular thought or mental image. Following this initial focusing, the aim is to maintain a calm mind while the person becomes more aware of their surroundings, letting go of any thoughts or sensations that might otherwise cause distraction or stress.
For people who haven’t previously attempted to meditate, the prospect of doing so may seem daunting. However, there are some simple and straightforward yet highly effective meditations that a beginner can start with. Perhaps the easiest to attempt first is a breath-based mindfulness meditation, a simple example of which is outlined below.
Mindfulness Meditation for Beginners
1. Find a peaceful spot where you won’t be disturbed. Turn off all devices or appliances that may cause distraction and interrupt your meditation. The only thing you may want is a gentle sounding alarm set for when you want to end your meditation. 10 minutes is a good length to begin off with.
2. Make sure you are wearing comfortable clothing and remove shoes or anything else that may be constricting.
3. Sit comfortably, either cross legged on a cushion, or on a chair with your feet flat on the floor. Straighten your upper body rather than slouching, but avoid your back being stiff.
4. Close your eyes or allow your gaze to soften.
5. Take three deep breaths. As you exhale, imagine you are breathing out all the stress and anxiety you have been feeling.
6. Working upwards through the body and starting with your feet, survey where you may be holding any tension in your muscles. Particular areas to think about are the jaw, shoulders, back and pelvis. Anywhere you notice tension, relax your muscles to release it so that your body feels relaxed and heavier.
7. Take three more deep breaths and then continue breathing in and out through your nose.
8. Start to focus only on the present. If your mind interrupts and starts thinking about something else, concentrate on the sound of your breathing to help you refocus.
9. The time between thoughts that come into your mind will start to lengthen. When you will feel your body physically relax further and your mind become clearer, this is a sign that your meditation has really started. By this point, you will be feeling a comforting sense of calm.
10. Remain in this state for as long as it feels physically comfortable to do so, or until the alarm you set sounds. Open your eyes and reflect on how your body and mind now feel, compared to when your meditation began.
Try and take time each day to meditate, whenever feels the best time for you. Making it roughly the same time each day will help your practice to become a habit.
What else can I do?
In addition to mindfulness meditation, there are many other ways in which you can be more mindful and improve your quality of life. The most important considerations are making an effort to be kinder to yourself; and removing some of the distractions that may otherwise be present in your life. This will allow you to focus on the here and now. Here are six simple things you can try:
1. Do one thing at a time: focus all of your attention on what you are doing rather than ‘multi-tasking’ and thinking about one thing while doing another.
2. Slow things down: instead of rushing from one task to the next, take a moment and pause between things. Be more deliberate, take your time and focus on what you are doing, every time you do something.
3. Make your day more manageable: try to avoid planning so many things that you have to either rush each task or do multiple things at once. Prioritise things and only plan in what you know you can get through. If you have time leftover, you can either reward yourself by resting or you could get a head start on the next day.
4. Take at least five minutes each day to do nothing. This will allow some breathing space when you are not thinking, planning or remembering things. Within this time you can meditate, enjoy the quiet space around you; or listen to some soothing music.
5. Practice Yoga. Yoga requires focus and concentration on your body as you move into, work through and move out of each posture. This keeps your mind focused on the present tense, and regular practice will also lead to physical benefits, such as improved strength and greater flexibility.
6. Do things regularly that allow you to ‘switch off’. Something you enjoy doing that involves being kind to yourself and removes the distractions of other things in your life. This might be taking a long, relaxing bath; closing your eyes and listening to music; sitting quietly and reading a positive, uplifting book; or stroking and cuddling up to your pet. The key things are that the activity is pleasurable, involves focussing mainly with one sense; and it keeps your mind in the present tense.
There are lots of books and online resources to help you learn more about mindfulness, including mindfulness meditation and other activities that you can try. Here are two that I recommend for you to start with:
‘A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled’ by Ruby Wax, paperback RRP £8.99. This is an enjoyable and easy to read guide written by the comedian and actress, who is now a trained mindfulness practitioner.
‘Getting Started With Mindfulness on Mind’ on the Mindful website This page Includes tips on mindfulness and some simple, guided meditations for you to try.