Mindfulness is the practice of training our attention.
Life can be extremely busy, and more often than not our attention is divided between many different things in any given moment: how many of us check our texts whilst waiting at the checkouts; eat our lunch whilst working at our desks; sort washing or do some tidying as we watch the dinner cooking?
And whilst our bodies are busy carrying out all these tasks, our minds are often somewhere else completely: we might worry about a family issue as we drive to work; chew over resentful thoughts as we clean the house; anxiously recall our 'to do list' as we eat the evening meal; plan tomorrow's tasks whilst brushing our teeth at bedtime. Our minds seem to go round and round automatically, jumping from one thing to another, with little or no direction from ourselves.
A mind that is 'scattered' in this way can be troublesome - how often do we feel overtired, forgetful, lacking in concentration, dissatisfied, uneasy or even overwhelmed? A Harvard study found that people spend 46.9 percent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they are doing. It seems that this kind of 'mindlessness' is the default setting for many of us, with the mind spending much of its time focused on the past, the future, or wading through 'should haves' and 'what ifs'. The study found that allowing the brain to run on auto-pilot like this can make people unhappy. The researchers concluded that:
“A wandering mind is an unhappy mind”
This is where mindfulness can help. Through the practice of mindfulness we train our attention to come back to what is happening in the present moment. We become more aware of our actual experience as it unfolds, and the things that regularly distract us. We begin to notice where the mind habitually wanders off to, and how much time is spent there! We do this by choosing to direct our attention to just one thing at a time. With practice, we find that our ability to concentrate increases and we start to let go of habitual negative mental chatter. We start to inhabit more moments of our experience with greater clarity, ease and kindness. Because we are choosing where to place our attention, we become more present and available for ourselves and those we care about. Training the mind in this way enables us to cultivate a sense of calm, spaciousness, balance and joy. We become less reactive and can respond more skillfully to challenging circumstances and situations.
Mindfulness in a nutshell
Mindfulness is “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally”.
Dr Jon Kabat Zinn
The Origins of Mindfulness
Mindfulness meditation originates from traditional ancient Eastern and Buddhist philosophies and dates back around 2500 years. However, you don’t have to be Buddhist or Hindu to practice mindfulness meditation. You can meditate and still practice your own religion or no religion at all. Mindfulness and meditation can be practised in an entirely secular way.
Jon Kabat-Zinn introduced the concept of mindfulness to the western world by incorporating techniques like meditation, breathing, and yoga into a holistic, non-secular, treatment for those struggling with chronic pain and stress as a result of physical illness (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction).
Practicing mindfulness can benefit our physical wellbeing and mental health.
There is a growing body of academic evidence which suggests that practicing mindfulness and meditation regularly has positive effects on the mind, the brain, the body, and behaviour, as well as our relationships with others. Mindfulness has been shown to help with stress, anxiety, depression, and physical problems like high blood pressure, heart disease and chronic pain. The NHS promotes mindfulness as one of the Five Ways To Wellbeing.
We all have times when we feel a bit low, stressed or worried. Our hectic daily routines can leave us feeling tired, dissatisfied, unsettled and unhappy. More often than not, those feelings pass, but sometimes they can be hard to shake off and can develop into a more serious problem. Sometimes we can feel overwhelmed by what life throws at us - the big events that change things completely, or the accumulation of day to day troubles that take up so much headspace.
Mindfulness enables us to become more aware of the habitual patterns of thinking and reacting that may be keeping us stuck in the fatigue, restlessness, unease and dissatisfaction that seem to dog our waking hours. We get better at seeing the difference between what is really happening, and the stories we tell ourselves about what is happening. By unhooking ourselves from these stories, we create a space from which we can respond skilfully and with greater self-compassion.
Mindfulness has been incorporated into psychological therapies and stress reduction programmes. Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) MBCT is recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) for the prevention of relapse in recurrent depression.
It combines mindfulness techniques, like meditation, breathing exercises, and stretching, with elements from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to help break the negative thought patterns that are characteristic of recurrent depression.
MBCT provides a flexible set of skills to manage your mental health and to support wellbeing.