Some people are instinctively cynical when mindfulness is mentioned. It can bring to mind new age, eastern, woo-woo nonsense.
However, when you take away some of the cultural and religious trappings around these mind practices, then you will find some very simple techniques that have surprisingly effective results.
Results that are proven by evidence.
What Is It?
Mindfulness is a purposeful awareness of your experience in the present moment.
The core of the technique is being aware of your breathing.
Once you’ve got that going it is expanded to get you paying attention to each thought or feeling.
Another way to describe it is as a state of clear, “present-centered awareness in which each thought, feeling, or sensation that arises in the attentional field is acknowledged and accepted as it is. [It] is characterized by curiosity, openness, and acceptance“.
A non-judgmental attitude is key – it means that you sit with your experience, whether good or bad, and accept it for what it is.
And that’s pretty much it.
What Has It Done For Me?
The benefits are wide ranging and no less than profound.
I began by doing a short 4 week course and immediately noticed the benefits. It reduced my insomnia like no other solution.
The increased self-awareness it brings means that I see more clearly how I am reacting to a situation. I am aware of my emotional response, and can see more clearly the choice I have of whether to allow that emotion to drive my actions, or to choose another path. This has clear applications in conflict situations. With this self awareness comes a greater awareness of how others respond to my actions too.
Given the increased awareness of the moment this mindset brings, I am able to enjoy the small things more. Simply paying close attention to the sensations when I’m eating a sandwich means it can become a much richer experience. Even something like doing the washing up can be more enjoyable.
I’ve also found it’s helped me to improve my concentration, because after all, it is at its core, exercising the ability to focus. Focus is closely related to willpower, which has been proven to be something we can improve.
The ability to focus in this way means that I can step back from the current swirl of thoughts in my mind. In this state I often find that important things I was forgetting bubble up to my conscious mind.
What Else Can It Do?
“In these days, with so much data to look at, with so many demands on our time, to have the ability to better focus our attention, and to become aware when we’ve got distracted, is an invaluable skill.”
“Not only has mindfulness been clinically proven to reduce stress, blood pressure, depression and anxiety, but it has also been proven to help people sleep better, work more effectively and improve their personal and professional relationships. It even helps people cope with chronic pain.” Be Mindful Online
“Developing this quality of mind has been shown to reduce pain, anxiety, and depression; improve cognitive function; and even produce changes in gray matter density in regions of the brain related to learning and memory, emotional regulation, and self-awareness.” Sam Harris
It reduces rumination, something at the core of the depressive mindset. It has been shown to reduce depression and bipolar symptoms. Increasing awareness, as every psychologist will say, is the first and hardest step in dealing with psychological problems.
Chade-Meng Tan describes how, when using these techniques, you watch your emotions and realise they are not you, but something you experience. “Therefore they are not permanent, they are changeable. This attitude, while seemingly simple, can bring great solace, and eventually significant change to people suffering from limiting psychological problems.”
Jonah Lehrer said: “patients who escaped depression with the help of anti-depressants, and then stopped taking the drugs, relapsed about 70 percent of the time. The chemical boost was temporary. However, during the 18 month follow-up period, only 28 percent of patients in mindfulness therapy slipped back into the mental illness.”
It can give you a greater awareness of your physical state, and of bodily reactions to your environment. It can even boost your immune system.
Andrew Newberg describes how brains scans of lifetime meditators show that “there is a diminution of activity in the parietal lobes, those areas responsible for self image, and perception of space and time. That means that people do – in their perception – transcend their bodies, space and time and are able to be “in the moment”. Great insights can come from this mind state, as well as increased peace and well-being.”
Regular practitioners of mindfulness show increased activity in the frontal cortex and decreased activity in the amygdala. The amygdala is implicated in emotional responses such as fear, whereas the frontal cortex shows activity when exercising executive control, planning, etc. This means you become more able to control your emotional reactions.
It can even “lead to epigenetic alterations of the genome“.
How Can I Try It?
So give it a go. Sam Harris has published a helpful guided 9 minute meditation to start you off.
And if you really want to train yourself in the habit I recommend this online course. It costs £60, takes 4 weeks, and you’ll need to set aside a little time every day to do it. It gives guided meditations, instructional videos, and resources to help you track your progress.