What Is Mindfulness?

And How Does It Help Us Seize the Day?


Mindfulness has become quite the buzz word nowadays. Everywhere from offices to schools to hospitals are now offering mindfulness classes. So what exactly is it and how can it help us in the context of our daily lives?

Have you ever arrived at a destination only to realise you have no memory at all of how you got there? Or suddenly realise you’ve managed to munch your way through a whole packet of biscuits and can’t remember doing so?

If so, you are not alone. This is a state known as “Autopilot.” When we are in autopilot, we are not aware of what we are doing in the present moment. We’re acting out of habit rather than being consciously focused on the task at hand.  

In this way, we may not be present for much of our lives. When we are performing a task in autopilot, our minds wander and daydream.  Before we know it we’re planning our next holiday, deciding what to have for dinner or worrying about the next work meeting.

Our minds become identified with doing something to achieve the end result and we forget to be present and enjoy the journey along the way. According to research conducted by Harvard researcher Matt Killingsworth, the average person is in autopilot 47% of the time1A Wandering Mind Is An Unhappy Mind Matthew A. Killingsworth, Daniel T. Gilbert. Science, 2010. .

Matt Killingsworth gives a great talk about mindfulness on TED in this must watch video:

 

So what is mindfulness and how can it help us seize the day? Dr Jon Kabat Zinn, founder of the 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Release (MBSR) program says

“Mindfulness is the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally, to things as they are.”

Moment by moment awareness

The aim then is to be aware moment by moment of our thoughts, feelings, sensations and the world around us. We drop into the present moment and notice what is happening for us in the here and now. It could be a pain in the body, a feeling of happiness or a difficult emotion that we become aware of, such as anger.

We are not trying to suppress feelings and push them away but rather we become aware of them and investigate them with an open sense of curiosity. Professor Mark Williams from the Oxford Mindfulness Centre says:

“Mindfulness means paying attention to things as they are in any given moment however they are, rather than as we want them to be.”2The Mindful Way Through Depression Professor Mark Williams 2007

Professor Mark Williams leads a quick and effective meditation you can try here

What mindfulness is not!

People sometimes say “I can’t meditate. I just can’t seem to stop thinking!”  Mindfulness is NOT about stopping thinking and clearing the mind. If we try really hard not to think about bananas, what is the first thing we think of? Bananas!!  

Mind’s think. Naturally, that’s what they do. We can cultivate mindfulness to become aware of our thoughts and not caught up in them. If we can see them, we are not in them. Dan Harris from ABC News and author of the New York Times bestseller 10% Happier does a great job of clarifying. He describes it as

“The skill of knowing what’s happening in your head at any given moment without getting carried away by it.”3Psychology Today Mindfulness: “The power of thinking about your thinking” Christopher Bergland. April 09 2015

In the below inspiring interview with Dan Harris he talks about his story and how he came to mindfulness:

In mindfulness we are not trying to be “peaceful” or “relaxed,” or go into in a joss stick waving blissful trance. Feelings of peace and relaxation will often happen as a by-product of mindfulness practice but they are NOT the main aim.

Jeff Brantley, MD, a psychiatrist, Buddhist practitioner and one of the founders of Duke Integrative Medicine says:

“The goal in mindfulness is awareness, not relaxation. People need to stop judging how aware they are by how relaxed they feel, but rather by how closely they notice what’s actually happening.”4Thrive Global A Buddhist Psychiatrist Explains Why Meditation Isn’t About Relaxing Gigi Falk 24 July 2017

So to seize the day in life we need to become aware of our thoughts, feelings and emotions. By paying attention to them, we are better able to manage them and there is the possibility of taking them less personally. The mindfulness report 2010 says

“mindful interventions do not encourage people to challenge their thoughts…. rather, mindfulness interventions aim to teach us how to accept our thoughts without unhelpfully identifying with them.”

In mindfulness, thoughts, feelings and emotions are watched objectively. Here’s a meditation you can try “watch your thoughts like clouds in the sky” to experience what it’s like to be the observer of your thoughts.

Where does mindfulness come from?

We all know that mindfulness is popular in the Western world but how did it start? Its roots are in India and Buddhist meditation. Buddhists believe that the key to awakening is through self-inquiry and self-observation. They practise a type of meditation called Vipassana (“insight”) meditation which involves paying close attention to what is happening in the body and the mind.  

To learn more, try this Vipassana meditation led by the venerated Buddhist Monk Bhante Bodhidhamma

Why practise mindfulness?

We all need a little help to seize the day at times. Mindfulness does just that and ensures that we are operating at peak performance in our lives. There is a huge body of research backed by scientific findings on the benefits. Studies indicate that it reduces anxiety,  depression, self-hostility, insomnia, and post-traumatic symptoms5A randomized controlled trial of mindfulness meditation versus relaxation training: Effects on distress, positive states of mind, rumination, and distraction. Shamini Jain, Shauna . In a trial conducted by Pots W.T., et al6The efficacy of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy as a public mental health intervention for adults with mild to moderate depressive symptomatology: a randomized controlled trial. they found participants who practised mindfulness experienced “significant reductions in depression, anxiety and avoidance.” Therefore mindfulness is shown to help with our well being, it can also help us perform at our best both in work and our personal lives.

Cognitive neuroscientist Dr David Vago talks more on the benefits for TEDx here:

Mindfulness Helps To Reduce Stress

We all feel stress at times. It can be normal, however, it’s how we deal with stress that makes us feel better equipped to seize the day.  At its’ worst stress can be debilitating leaving us feeling strung out, irritable and short-fused. Mindfulness can help.

Studies have shown that mindfulness relaxes the nervous system and literally shrinks the brain’s fight or flight centre – the amygdala. This is the part of the brain that is responsible for turning on the stress response and making us feel strung out. The Washington Post reports that in one study, researchers found that practising mindfulness not only reduces the size of the amygdala but also reduces stress levels, leaving us calmer as a result.  

The good news doesn’t stop there. Mindfulness is believed to increase the density of grey matter in the brain7Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain grey matter density. Britta K. Hölzel, James Carmody, Mark Vangel, Christina Congleton, Sita M. Yerramsetti, . More grey matter means we are better able to focus, have improved memory and increased learning capacity all of which help to combat stress. Therefore its suggested that by practising mindfulness you can give yourself greater thinking power just like building up your muscles in the gym.

Below, neuroscientist, Sara Lazar talks about how mindfulness builds grey matter in the brain for TEDx:

Dealing With Physical Pain

We all suffer from pain from time to time, whether it’s the result of exercise, ill health, accidents or the natural ageing of the body. Mindfulness has been proven to help with all of these. Dr Jon Kabat Zinn first introduced his 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program for the management of pain in hospitals across America in the 1970s. The program involves gentle yoga and the “body scan,” in which patients are guided to direct their attention to different parts of the body. Try Dr Jon Kabat Zinn’s guided bodyscan meditation

Research has found that Dr Kabat Zinn’s 8-week course can help patients deal with chronic pain and health problems8Mindfulness Meditation for Chronic Pain: Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Lara Hilton, MPH, Susanne Hempel, PhD, Brett A. Ewing, MS, Eric Apaydin, MPP, Lea . It can also help to improve the immune system. Meanwhile a new study in the Journal of Translational Psychiatry found wound healing and improved immune system functioning evident in groups of people who meditate. Practising mindfulness then, not only leads to a healthier mind but a healthier body too!

The Best Diet!!

Good news for dieters out there. Research has shown that mindfulness is shown to work better than diets for long term weight loss. Mindful eating is the practice of paying attention to what and how we eat. Often we thoughtlessly chomp our way through a meal, indulge and over-eat. With mindful eating, the aim is to become aware of every mouthful. We feel the taste sensations in the mouth, notice as we swallow the food and observe our cravings for more.

At the Duke University Center for Integrative Medicine in the US, they teach people how to use mindfulness to lose weight. Clinical trials that used their approach discovered that participants who practised mindful eating had reduced compulsive eating habits and better self-control.

To give it a try have a listen to these meditations by Lynn Rossy PhD from the Center of Mindful Eating.

Self-control

We are all swept away by our emotions occasionally. We may get angry after an argument with our spouse, fly off the handle at our children or blame others for our low mood. All too often we get stuck in autopilot and react in unhelpful ways.

Mindfulness improves self control and allows us to change our automatic responses. Moment by moment awareness of our thoughts and feelings gives us a window of opportunity to reflect before we react to a situation. Being mindful of our responses allows us to regain control over our emotions and act in more constructive ways, leading to greater well being and happiness in our lives. Find out more about mindfulness and self control by watching this video by Dr. Miles Neale

Daily life

Of course, we can all benefit from greater self-control, less stress and being more present in our daily lives. So how can we bring mindfulness into practical, everyday living? All situations in life can become a tool for mindfulness. We can notice how we are reacting in a conversation, bring our attention to how we are feeling or become aware of the environment around us. Ajahn Chah a revered monk in the Thai Forest Buddhist tradition says Everything is teaching us.”

Thich Nhat Hanh – a monk in the Zen tradition says in The Miracle of Mindfulness “There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes to wash the dishes.” In this way, we can drop into the present moment no matter how mundane the task. Rather than rushing to achieve a final outcome, we bring presence to the journey on the way.

How to get started?

Getting started in meditation is easy. A great place to start your first meditation is this quick and simple 3 minute guided practice.

Or you could take a course to get an overview of meditation and how to practise. Many run in the evenings and are structured over 8 weeks. If you don’t want to commit to signing up for a full course,  drop-in classes are available in most areas too.

For the brave, you could try total immersion in a 7-day silent meditation retreat which is going to give a great foundation in mindfulness practice.

Give it a go…

So mindfulness is about paying attention to the present moment in a special way. It helps us to maintain healthy bodies and healthy minds, leading us to make the most out of life and seize the day. If you haven’t tried it already, why not give it a go and find out what all the buzz is about?

 

unsplash-logoDaniel Gaffey

Sources and references:

#Description
1A Wandering Mind Is An Unhappy Mind Matthew A. Killingsworth, Daniel T. Gilbert. Science, 2010.
2The Mindful Way Through Depression Professor Mark Williams 2007
3Psychology Today Mindfulness: “The power of thinking about your thinking” Christopher Bergland. April 09 2015
4Thrive Global A Buddhist Psychiatrist Explains Why Meditation Isn’t About Relaxing Gigi Falk 24 July 2017
5A randomized controlled trial of mindfulness meditation versus relaxation training: Effects on distress, positive states of mind, rumination, and distraction. Shamini Jain, Shauna L. Shapiro, Summer Swanick, Scott C. Roesch, Paul J. Mills, Iris Bell, Gary E. R. Schwartz. Annals of Behavioural Medicine. February 2007, Volume 33, Pages 11-21.
6The efficacy of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy as a public mental health intervention for adults with mild to moderate depressive symptomatology: a randomized controlled trial. Pots WT, Meulenbeek PA, Veehof MM, Klungers J, Bohlmeijer ET. 2014.
7Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain grey matter density. Britta K. Hölzel, James Carmody, Mark Vangel, Christina Congleton, Sita M. Yerramsetti, Tim Gard, and Sara W. Lazara. Psychiatry Res. 2012.
8Mindfulness Meditation for Chronic Pain: Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Lara Hilton, MPH, Susanne Hempel, PhD, Brett A. Ewing, MS, Eric Apaydin, MPP, Lea Xenakis, MPA, Sydne Newberry, PhD, Ben Colaiaco, MA, Alicia Ruelaz Maher, MD, Roberta M. Shanman, MS, Melony E. Sorbero, PhD, and Margaret A. Maglione, MPP. Ann Behav Med. 2016.

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