Last year when I was joining in with a group Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) session, our group leader introduced us to a meditation technique called mindfulness. For a few minutes at the start of the session, we were asked to sit comfortably, with our feet flat on the floor and eyes closed, while we listened to her voice. I remember feeling quite awkward about sitting in a room full of people, with my eyes closed and no matter how hard I tried, I really struggled to avoid the noise in my head and to focus on what the group leader was saying. In essence, this is what mindfulness is all about.
So what is mindfulness?
Modern mindfulness is a technique developed by Jon Kabut-Zinn, which has it’s roots in ancient Buddhism. According to his definition, it means:
“paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non judge-mentally.”
Essentially it’s not getting caught up in the sometimes frantic waves of thought, that end up winding us up and causing us to think in constant circles. For example, imagine a situation where you were worrying over something – perhaps a friend was supposed to call you, yet they haven’t got back to you. More often than not, you’ll start wondering why that friend hasn’t returned your call, could there be something wrong with them? Have you done something to upset them? Your mind will lead you down the path of possibilities and before you know it, that initial worry has manifested into something bigger.
What mindfulness tries to do is to bring your thoughts back to the here and now, by pulling your attention away from what is occupying your mind and focusing what is actually happening in your body. In the therapy session we were instructed to do this, by focusing on the soles of our feet and to concentrate on the sensations we felt. Surprisingly I discovered that far from just feeling like a foot – when I focused all of my attention on it, a whole host of things were going on there that previously, I hadn’t noticed. My foot tingled, I could feel the floor pressing against my heel and noticed that there was a small hole in my sock, where the texture of the carpet was brushing against the exposed toe. The aim of the exercise was to take us out of the whirlwind of stress, random thoughts and worry and instead, to bring it the present – to right now in the moment.
When I asked our group leader, “but what is mindfulness?”, she said to imagine that you are stood on the banks of a river and that below is a raging body of water, representing your thoughts. If you were to jump in to that river and tackle, fight and push your way against those thoughts, you’re not going to achieve anything other than exhausting yourself. However if you were to stop fighting the river would sweep you along on it’s journey and the tension would stop. So mindfulness is allowing thoughts to happen, as they happen and to go along with them and to be curious about where they will lead you.
What are the benefits of mindfulness?
Now I’m far from an expert on this subject, yet I have personal experience to draw on, when it comes to the benefits of practising mindfulness. Every day I take a couple of minutes to sit and to guide my attention onto how I’m breathing. I make myself aware of the sensation of air filling my lungs, how my chest expands and how the breath makes other areas of my body feel. I then focus my attention on the feeling of that breath leaving my body and note how it effects me.
This is one of many ways of practising mindfulness. Some people use movement as a way to bring their thoughts to the present by concentrating on how their limbs feel, when they move them in a deliberate, slow and mindful way. Another technique is to focus on sounds in the environment around you, like the ticking of a clock for instance. Whatever method you use, there are real benefits to practising mindfulness, particularly for people who like me, suffer with stress, depression and anxiety.
It has been suggested that over time, with regular practice, mindfulness can help to reduce stress and to increase a person’s level of happiness and quality of life, by making us more aware of how we approach potentially threatening or stressful situations. If we are able to make better decisions about things, then it stands to reason that this will have a positive effect on how we are feeling.
In my own experience since starting mindfulness meditation, I have found that I’m better able to diffuse a situation that before I would have lost control of. Because I am mindful of what is occurring in the moment, instead of thinking “Oh my god the kids have got chilli powder all over them!” (this actually happened) for example, I would be able to think about how to solve the situation.
I still find the practice difficult – some days, no matter how hard I try, my thoughts will still intrude and I’ll find myself going down a trail of thought, before I realise what I’m doing. Even our group leader said that she doesn’t believe you can ever truly be a master of it and she’d been doing it for years! However it is still a valuable coping mechanism and one that anyone can try and potentially benefit from.
What are your thoughts on mindfulness – have you ever tried it or would it be something you would consider giving a go? Do let me know, as it’s a subject that fascinates me!