We live in a generation of constantly updating buzzwords and newly fashionable concepts that celebrities like to throw around. Sorry, Naomi Campbell, but mobile phones are just so last year. This is the era of new dictionary additions and perpetually evolving text-talk. A selfie is so much more than a photo; it is a universal movement, sweeping across borders and time zones. A hashtag is now more powerful than a political debate or publicity stunt. But what about the new kid on the block, mindfulness? What is this hippy, Eastern term in which psychologists and large companies alike are so interested? You have probably seen pictures of the Buddha in a crossed-legged lotus position, eyes shut, in a state of tranquillity. This is a depiction of the origin of mindfulness. It comes from Eastern religion and philosophy and has been used in Chinese medicine to combat mental illness for thousands of years before the West adopted it. However, in modern terms, it is the non-judgemental awareness of what is happening inside and outside of your body. Mindfulness involves being aware of your bodily sensations movement by movement in the present moment and welcoming them with loving kindness.
You may be telling yourself that you are always mindful of what you do. You may take time to make big decisions and you may always put others before yourself. Apologies, this is not mindfulness. Mindfulness is about anchoring ourselves in the present moment. The average brain has between 50,000 and 70,000 thoughts per day. That is almost a thought a second. Who would have thought? I couldn’t resist the temptation to be… punny: another newly-coined term of the times. Our brains have to be strategic in choosing which thoughts to process in our conscious mind and which ones to let go. Our brains do this by remembering past events and trying to predict future events in order to minimise threat and maximise reward. This results in a species who live in regret of the past and fear of the future. So when do we actually live? In what time period do we experience this thing we call life? Life in the past is unchangeable and life in the future is a fantasy until it happens. Why then do we spend so much time analysing thoughts which actually don’t matter? How many times have you been in the middle of eating a bag of crisps and looked down only to find that it was finished? How many times have you driven the same, banal route to work and were unable to describe any details of the journey to a colleague? Or what about when you are talking with someone, listening but not hearing what they say? Your mind is elsewhere: “what will I have for dinner? I need to phone my mum since I haven’t spoken to her in a week. I hope I get this new job. I wonder when Tesco shuts. Should I have a bottle of wine tonight or does that make me an alcoholic?” Meanwhile, the conversation has finished and you aren’t 100% sure of what was said and you probably didn’t say anything meaningful.
But how exactly does one become mindful? You don’t have to drink some expensive elixir of life, propelling you to a state of enlightenment. You don’t have to meditate under a Bodhi tree for 16 hours a day. You simply have to take some time to still your thoughts and experience the present moment, letting go of thoughts of the past and future. The easiest way to do this is to bring your attention to your breath. You can do this anywhere, any time and the best part is that no one will know you are even doing it. Next time you find your mind on planet X, bring your attention to your breath and breathe in deeply for four seconds. Hold the breath for a short pause and then exhale for the same amount of time. Try to do this for 20 seconds at first and gradually increase the time spent focused on your breath as your attention span strengthens. It could be a good idea to do this once every hour. You may even want to set an alarm to get into a good habit. Your brain, at first, will find this alien and your mind will be invaded constantly by nuisance thoughts. With practise new neural pathways will be created and it will become second nature.
The benefits of this kind of basic mindfulness is that deep breathing activates a part of the brain called the parasympathetic system. This is where the feel good hormones are released. In seeing the present moment clearly and calmly, you are able to see reality for what it really is. In turn, you can make clear, informed decisions without relying on past or future events. When we feel down, lonely or agitated a part of the brain called the amygdala is being stimulated. The amygdala is found in the limbic system of the brain. This is known as our old brain since it was the first to develop when humans lived in the wild and it deals with emotions and memory. When we practise mindfulness, we activate the new part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. This new section deals with problem solving and analysis. The more we use certain aspects of the brain, the stronger they become. Mindfulness strengthens the part of our cerebral matter that allows us to take a step back from stressful situations and analyse them objectively. If we allow our old brain to control us, we will act on impulse and think later: the way our ancestors did in the wild in order to survive predatory attacks. This kind of fight or flight mode is no longer needed in modern society since we do not have the same kind of threats.
We have already established that mindfulness allows you to view your changing thoughts in a non-judgemental way. You have to view good thoughts and bad thoughts in the same manner. When you have, what is perceived as, a bad thought or emotion, you can watch them drift away like a passing storm in the sky. It is a temporary bout of bad weather. Distancing yourself from your thoughts and feelings and not giving them an emotional response trains the brain to realise that your thoughts are not you. It allows you to catch negative thought patterns as they arise and deal with them swiftly. People who have a tendency to suffer from anxiety and depression, stop judging their symptoms and simply accept them for what they are: thoughts and feelings; no different from feelings of joy, happiness, contentment. The only difference is that we are programmed cognitively to be aware of what a bad thought feels like and what a good one feels like. But emotionally there is no difference. Thoughts are feelings are not physical and they are not harmful or dangerous if you treat them all the same. In fact, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is now the preferred treatment for clinical depression by NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence).
With mindfulness we are not aiming to stop or control our thoughts but rather become aware of them. We spend an average of 47% of our day on auto-pilot. If we increase our conscious awareness of what is happening in and around us, we are less likely to respond mechanically like robots to our old habits and destructive thought patterns. Mindfulness will not stop your problems but it will change your perception of them. Slowly, you will start to realise that problems result from your imagination and perception. If you let them float away, they will no longer cause you harm.
I sincerely hope that my brief overview of mindfulness has sparked some interest and that you continue to research it the way I did. There are so many methods out there to practise this ancient, Eastern tradition and all you have to do is be self-aware and find the one that suits you best. Personally, I incorporate mindfulness into my shopping trips. I bring my full attention to the colour, texture and smell of the clothes, engaging all my senses whilst doing the deep breathing exercise. Alternatively, whilst eating a meal you could really look at the bedlam of colours, and engage your attention when feeling the different textures on your tongue. This is easy to do for the first few mouthfuls but becomes increasingly difficult the more you eat. Your mind will wonder but just return your attention softly to your palette or any other sense that you are using. If you have any questions, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will endeavour to explain them to the best of my ability.
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