What is all the fuss about Mindfulness?
Mindfulness as a western practice has been around since the 1970’s, when Clinical Psychologist Jon Kabat-Zinn extracted the key principles of Buddhist meditation into an 8 week program for stress reduction. Buddhist meditation has been around for hundreds of years, and we now have the science to support what many mystics and meditators have known for years, from their own inner experience.
Practicing mindfulness regularly has the capacity to re-write your brain, by utilising the neuroplasticity of the human brain to create lasting change. Here is a brief and by no means exhaustive list of some of the benefits mindfulness can bring about:
- Relaxation and improved sleep
- An effective Anxiety & Depression management tool
- Helpful in creating new and healthful habits
- Anger management
- Emotional regulation
- Better communication and improved relationships
- Greater self-esteem
- Improved life satisfaction and gratitude
But how does it do all of this?
Firstly the practice is grounded in the body and in breathing. When we are focussed on our breath, and in particular on deep belly breaths, the body rests. A deep and purposeful breath, begins to shift the body into a state of rest and relaxation by switching on the parasympathetic nervous system. When we are stressed out, or hijacked by strong emotions like anger and anxiety, our sympathetic nervous system is activated. This means we can experience muscular tension, we react in ways we would prefer to avoid, we lose sleep, and our immune system can become compromised. This nervous system is associated with the ‘Fight, Flight, or Freeze response’, which in times of real threat is very helpful. However much of our stress in day to day life, can be dealt with more effectively.
Focus on the body and breath turns on the relaxation button of the brain
Secondly, mindfulness increases your awareness of your ‘inner autopilot’ by developing your mental attention muscle. This means, you become aware of your automatic unhelpful thought patterns, and behaviours. As humans, we have developed the ability to do a lot, without conscious awareness. Much of our thinking and doing is automatic, and in doing so conserves energy and mental processing time. There is however a downfall, and we are susceptible to getting into bad habits, both mentally and physically. Negative automatic thinking patterns can wreak havoc on an individual’s life, contributing to anxiety, low self-esteem and depression. Mindfulness raises your awareness of your automatic habits, giving you the opportunity to; choose which thoughts you allow yourself to entertain, how you respond to people in your life, and what behaviours and habits are helpful in paving your way to a fulfilling life.
Being aware of your automatic thinking patterns and behaviours creates an opportunity for you to break out of autopilot, into conscious & purposeful living
Ok, but how do I actually ‘be’ mindful?
Mindfulness is a particular way of paying attention to your present moment experience. Paying attention with; a curious and gentle attitude, that is accepting and non-judgemental of what is. This does not mean that goals and growth aren’t possible, rather we are better placed to enjoy the moment and achieve our goals if we have an accepting relationship with where we ‘are’.
So Mindfulness is a way of being, and therefore much of what we do in life can become an opportunity for practicing mindfulness; washing the dishes, drinking a cup of tea, hugging a loved one.
- Bring your attention to what it is you are doing
- Become aware of your breath, & take a deep breath
- Observe the sensations in the body, without reacting to them
- Be aware of thoughts and feelings as they arise, without getting caught in them
- And when you do, congratulate yourself for noticing, and gently return your attention to the activity that you are being mindful of
Alternatively, you can take the opportunity to turn mindfulness into a part of your daily health routine, and dedicate some time in the day for a ‘mindfulness sit’. In the beginning stages, it can be helpful to utilise a mindfulness app to guide you thru the experience. Most ‘mindfulness sits’ are variations of breath awareness, body awareness, thought awareness and emotional awareness.
I have listed a few tried and true apps below to get you started:
- Mindfulness: the art of being human
- Insight Timer
- Smiling Mind
- The Mindfulness App
Gratitude & Loving Kindness
A large component of mindfulness is cultivating gratitude and loving kindness. The mind has a tendency to stick to negative experiences for evolutionary purposes, whilst quickly forgetting the positive ones. There are however, many more positive experiences in our lives than there are negative, although our mind acts like Teflon in those instances! So, it is important to actively cultivate gratitude and loving kindness for our lives, the people in it, and for ourselves; increasing our sense of appreciation and joy in day to day life.
A simple exercise for this, is finishing the day with a gratitude journal. Contemplate what you enjoyed, what made your day easier, who you appreciate, and what small or large achievement you may have accomplished. This is a gentle yet effective of way of bringing your mind towards that which is going well in your world.