My name is Shamash and I have been teaching mindfulness for about ten years. I initially used it just to reduce stress, but have since discovered many more benefits. In fact I think it’s so helpful for people, I now practise and teach mindfulness courses on the phone and in person on a full-time basis.
What is mindfulness I hear you say! I’m glad you asked…Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally to things as they are.
Pay attention to what? To anything, especially aspects of life that we tend to take for granted. For example, we may pay attention to how we walk, what we are thinking when in the shower, or how we feel whilst browsing on the internet.
Paying attention is this way gives an opportunity to respond to stress rather than react. Mindfulness allows you to exert control and infuluence the flow of events when you are likely to react automatically.
We are not trying to suppress emotions when we respond to stress. We are learning to work with all our reactions, both emotional and physical, to see how we may respond more effectively. Awareness brings comfort of a certain kind. We could call this the comfort of being whole.
Mindfulness is developed, deepened and enriched through the practice of mindfulness meditation. By establishing a regular, daily practice of mindfulness meditation, research has shown it will result in positive emotional changes in the brain, less depression and anxiety, less stress reactivity and more reasonable responses to challenges, and a greater sense of wellbeing.
Meditation is not as difficult as people make it sound – by doing a course or workshop by an understanding teacher, you’ll learn the art of meditation within a few weeks or so.
Mindfulness first came into western science and medicine in 1979 by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn and colleagues at the UMASS Medical School in the United States. He developed an eight week course called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Through research this program showed time and again to reduce stress, anxiety, depression and chronic pain, as well as many other positive outcomes, both mental and physical.
Here are some of the benefits of mindfulness as listed by the Center of Mindfulness at the UMASS medical school:
Lasting decreases in physical and psychological symptoms:
- An increased ability to relax
- Reductions in pain levels and an enhanced ability to cope with pain that may not go away
- Greater energy and enthusiasm for life
- Improved self-esteem
- An ability to cope more effectively with both short and long-term stressful situations
- People participate for reasons as diverse as…
- Stress — job, family or financial
- Chronic pain and illness
- Anxiety and panic
- Gastrointestinal distress
- Sleep disturbances
- High blood pressure
Mindfulness is used as a serious therapy for managing depression. About 10 years ago, Professors Mark Williams, Zindel Segal and John Teasdale were searching for a group therapy that would reduce the chance of recurring depression which is a huge problem worldwide. They developed an eight week program called Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) which combined mindfulness training with some elements of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Two randomly controlled trials found this new mindfulness-based therapy to be 50% more effective than treatment as usual for reducing the onset of depression for those who had suffered from 3 or more episodes of depression in the past. The National Health Service in the UK now recognises MBCT as the treatment of choice for recurring depression.
How does mindfulness reduce the onset of depression?
Here’s an explanation from the developers of MBCT:
1. When we enter a phase in our lives when we are vulnerable to depression, we lose touch with what is going on around us. It is a sort of tunnel vision: we can only see part of the landscape. We do not notice the moment when a spiral of low mood is starting.
Mindfulness practice helps us to see more clearly the patterns of the mind; and to learn how recognise when our mood is beginning to go down. This means we can ‘nip it in the bud’ much earlier than before.
2. The very ‘losing touch’ with things can put a barrier between ourselves and the small things in life that might have given us pleasure. This tendency can become extreme in clinical depression where it is known as ‘anhedonia’ (lack of pleasure from things we used to enjoy). But we all may know the feeling, especially when there is too much to do at work or home, or we are preoccupied on a project, when we don’t notice the small pleasures around us.
Mindfulness teaches us a way in which we can get back in touch with the experience of being alive.
3. Low mood can bring back memories and thoughts from the past, and make us worry about the future.
Mindfulness helps to halt the escalation of these negative thoughts and teaches us to focus on the present moment, rather than reliving the past or pre-living the future.
4. When we start to feel low, we tend to react as if our emotions were a problem to be solved: we start trying to use our critical thinking strategies. When these do not work, we re-double our efforts to use them. We end up over-thinking, brooding, ruminating, living in our heads.
Mindfulness helps us to enter an alternative mode of mind that includes thinking but is bigger than thinking. It teaches us to shift mental gears, from the mode of mind dominated by critical thinking (likely to provoke and accelerate downward mood spirals) to another mode of mind in which we experience the world directly, non-conceptually, and non-judgementally.
5. When we have been depressed, we dread it coming back. At its first sign, we may try to suppress the symptoms, pretend they aren’t there, or push away any unwanted thoughts or memories. But such suppression often does not work, and the very things we tried to get rid of come back with renewed force.
Mindfulness takes a different approach. It helps develop our willingness to experience emotions, our capacity to be open to even painful emotions. It helps give us the courage to allow distressing mood, thoughts and sensations to come and go, without battling with them. We discover that difficult and unwanted thoughts and feelings can be held in awareness, and seen from an altogether different perspective – a perspective that brings with it a sense of warmth and compassion to the suffering we are experiencing.
Now there is a lot of excitement in the therapeutic world for applications of mindfulness. There’s mindfulness-based relapse prevention, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for anxiety, mindfulness therapy for eating disorders and the list goes on.
Mindfulness is beginning to be used in hospitals, school and businesses. Stress is like a disease that infiltrated almost every area of life, and mindfulness offers a way of managing that stress in a clinically-proven way that has been found to work time and again.
Here’s a little mindfulness exercise so that you can have a go:
This is probably the most popular mindfulness exercise. It is called mindfulness of breath or mindful breathing. Sometimes it’s also called sitting meditation or breath meditation. Here’s the instructions:
You can do mindfulness of breath either sitting up with your back relatively straight so you are relaxed but not slouching, or lying down on your bed, carpet or mat. If either of those postures are unsuitable, then any posture that feels right for you, which including standing or even walking slowly. You can either close your eyes or have your eyes half open. If you are feeling sleepy, it’s a good idea to keep your eyes open. Keep your arms and hands anywhere they feel comfortable – you may want to rest your hands on a cushion to prevent your arms dragging down your shoulders, but that’s not essential by any means.
1. Gently turn your attention to your own natural breathing. You can feel your breath in your nose, throat, chest or down in your belly, your lower abdomen.
2. To help you to focus you can quietly say to yourself ‘in’ or ‘inbreath’ as you breathe in, and ‘out’ or ‘outbreath’ as you naturally breathe out. Alternatively you can count your breaths from 1 to 10 in any way you prefer. For example you can say ‘one’ as you breathe out your first breath, and ‘two’ as you breathe out your second breath and so on. If you don’t find this labelling helpful, you can just leave it – it is designed to help you to focus, but if it’s a distraction for you, it’s better if you don’t use labels.
3. Almost immediately you’ll find that your mind gets caught up in thoughts, sensations, day dreams, worries, concerns and more. That’s completely normal and very much part of the process. As soon as you notice that your mind has taken your attention away from you breath, notice that you are now actually back in the here and now – the present moment. Then, without self-criticism or judgement or thinking that you can’t do this, simply and as kindly as you can, turn your attention back on to the breathing.
4. Repeat step 3 again and again. Your mind may wonder off thousands of times. That’s perfectly okay. No need to criticise or judge, simply notice and bring the attention back. Each time you do this, you strengthen your inner capacity for mindfulness. In the long run this has many benefits. The key is lots of patience and self-compassion.
5. After 10 minutes or so you can bring the exercise to a close. Notice how you feel and give your full mindful attention to whatever your next task is. The first time you practise you may feel worst rather than better – that’s quite normal too. Whenever you try something new, the experience is unusual and bring up uncomfortable feelings. With regular practice you will understand that emotions will always come and go and don’t affect the mindfulness as such – they are very much a part of the process.
I am author of the 300 page book and 70 minute CD package called ‘Mindfulness for Dummies’. It is a meditation bestseller! The book is published globally and offers a great introduction to the whole field of mindfulness, ideal for both lay people and professionals alike with chapters on mindfulness therapy, doing a mindfulness course on your own, mindfulness for children and parent and much more. You can read the first chapter free by going to facebook.com/mindfulnessfordummies and click on the links on the left