All about mindfulness
If you are new to mindfulness then this page is made for you. It's a what, why and how of mindfulness and is similar to what you might learn in an introduction to mindfulness session.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the ability we all have to simply be present with our moment to moment experience.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, a recognised authority in the field of mindfulness, describes it as
"paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally."
A way to perhaps understand that is to think about the opposite of the term - mindlessness or being distracted.
Distracted means not paying attention whether that’s to what we are doing, what someone is saying or even to what is going on inside our heads.
Think back to when you first learned to do something a little difficult – maybe learning to ride a bike or drive. When you were learning, you would have focused on every aspect of that task but now you can probably do it without thinking and that means you can hold a conversation or think about something else. You could say you are doing it on autopilot; it's become second nature.
The trouble with autopilot
As using the thinking part of the brain requires the greatest amount of energy, the human brain readily creates and runs "programmes" for activities we do often.
Being released from needing to pay close attention, our mind is free to daydream.
Unfortunately, when left to its own devices our mind usually wanders to things unfinished, regrets, worries and other types of negative thinking, which usually means we are rewinding to the past or forwarding into the future.
Either way it’s not being present. Your attention is not on the here and now.
Benefits of being mindful
Learning mindfulness teaches us how to not only pay attention to what is going on around us but also to observe our thoughts and sensations in the body.
This is key as the two are connected.
Our thoughts can trigger chemical and hormonal reactions in the body that we might feel such as increased heartbeat, churning or butterflies in the stomach, sweaty hands and such sensations might set off stories in our heads (I am nervous) which can create a self-perpetuating feedback loop.
By consciously choosing to pay attention to the present moment we can disengage from troubling thoughts that can lower our ability to concentrate, our mood and our capability to achieve something.
Being mindful we can learn about our habits. We begin to recognise our automatic (re)actions, our negative thinking tracks, our blindspots and our bias. In other words, things that are in the subconscious become conscious.
Using mindfulness we can respond rather than react to taxing or difficult situations.
It helps us to tune into our body's systems so that we know when it is telling us things don't seem right. We can check-in with what is going on for us and dial down a stress response before it floods our system and we perhaps feel overwhelmed.
Research has found that mindfulness practice increases resilience and enhances well-being. Not just in how we manage how we think, feel and behave but because it changes the structure of the brain in beneficial ways.
Regular practice reduces the size of the amygdala (associated with the stress response) and thickens the pre-frontal cortex (the executive centre responsible for rational and logical thinking) and the hippocampus (associated with memory and learning).
How do you do it?
Just like getting physically fit to be mentally fit, we need to work at it.
Although we may choose to focus our attention on something - the ticking of a clock or the warmth of the sun on our skin - like any skill you need to train yourself to be able to do it so you are not easily distracted by thoughts, other sensations or feelings.
Mindfulness trainers say it is like going to the gym; each time you practice you are creating new pathways in your brain and developing your attention muscle.
Those who are mindful regularly practice using particular attention training meditation exercises. This helps in a number of ways; you strengthen your ability to be aware and pay attention, you develop a mindful observational stance, you see thoughts as mental events, you can notice when you are beginning to feel anxious, stressed or worried and take appropriate action.
Just 10 minutes practice a day for 8 weeks is thought to be enough to see changes in the brain itself but even after just a week or two of practice you are likely to notice benefits.
What about the evidence?
The benefits of mindfulness have been studied since the late 1970s when Jon Kabat-Zinn started teaching what became known as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
He first taught those suffering with chronic pain whom the medical profession could do little for but now MBSR is taught to those living with a wide range of physical and mental health conditions.
>>>To learn more follow this link to journal papers published on the benefits of MBSR
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) was developed by leading scientist-practitioners. It combines cognitive therapy principles with a mindfulness practice.
Having recognised that unhelpful thinking plays a role in depressive episodes Zindel Segal, Mark Williams and John Teasdale were researching a means to teach people how to notice and disengage from such thought patterns. A number of research trials were undertaken to determine benefits. It was found that MBCT is as beneficial as taking anti-depressants for those who have had three such episodes.
Mindfulness-based therapies are an evidence-based self-management technique approved by the NHS (the UK National Health Service) and endorsed by its National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE).
>>>NICE publishes related mindfulness benefits evidence on its website here
Mindfulness for all
These days you can't seem to do anything without coming across the word mindfulness - it seems to be everywhere.
I think that's a good thing, after-all it's an ability we all have, we were just schooled in thinking and thus live much of the time in our heads. We just need reminding how to do it.
Ways to learn mindfulness
As interest in mindfulness has grown so too have the ways to learn it.
Do it yourself - book
The only book I recommend is Mindfulness: a guide to finding Peace in a Frantic World. It is the primary text I refer to in the mindfulness courses I teach.
This was written by one of the key researchers of MBCT, Mark Williams of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, UK and Danny Penman. It adapts the original MBCT course into a self-help format for the general population.
Do a course - clinical setting
Both MBSR and MBCT are clinically oriented programs typically taught in group sessions and for an 8 week period with home meditation practice of about 30-45 minutes.
You could talk to your doctor if you think you would benefit from a mindfulness-based therapy intervention like MBSR or MBCT.
Do a course - non-clinical setting
Alternatively, if you are interested in what it might bring to your life generally, you will likely find courses and teachers advertised locally and online.
I recommend attending a taster session before you sign up so that you are comfortable with the trainer's teaching style and spend time confirming their qualifications and personal practice. You can not teach what you don't have.
Learning to be mindful is not a short-term thing. Courses are generally taught over 6-8 weeks so that you establish a daily practice and start to embed mindful presence into your life.
Start right now
You could start today. This very moment in fact by stepping into the present by really taking notice of something via one of your senses. Noticing, not thinking.
This is about simply being with your experience and allowing it to be as it is.
Tune in to the sounds around you
Examine an object; seeing shadow and light
Stroke something; a surface, clothing, pet
Inhale; what do you smell, do you notice temperature?
Take a mouthful - hold it on your mouth, savour it
Thinking of starting?
TH!NC PRACTICE NOTES
Charting progress, logging reflections
as I sail my ship in and out of work
by Tracey Hewett