Mindfulness: What it is and how to do it

Last year was quite a ride. The world is reeling from the refugee crisis, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States; while closer to home we continue to ride a roller coaster of political instability and economic uncertainty.

It seems that there has never been a better time to try and reduce personal stress and one way to do this is by being mindful.

Modern-day mindful meditation

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is an adaptation of the Buddhist practice of mindfulness meditation, for modern-day health care.

It has been linked with a reduction in anxiety, depression, stress, irritability and exhaustion, as well as improvements in general mood, concentration, focus, emotional stability and even sleeping patterns.

Jon Kabat-Zinn defines MBSR as paying attention on purpose (with intention), in the present, without being judgmental. Others have described mindfulness as being aware, in the present, non-judgmentally.

In other words, it involves the deliberate intention of paying attention at any given time, whether that is during meditation or in the rituals of daily life. You could do it while sitting in traffic, waiting in a checkout line or preparing a meal.

It includes the attempt to remain aware and focused on that current experience, both physically and emotionally – without judging the experience. The emphasis is on remaining in the present, wherever that happens to be and whatever you may be experiencing.

Remain in the present

People who focus on the past tend to idealise ‘the good old days’, making it difficult to notice or acknowledge positive happenings in the present. This pattern of thinking can then quite easily result in depression

When we remain focused on the here and now, we have a realistic awareness of what is happening NOW and this helps us to respond to that specific situation, instead of being influenced by past experiences or future projections.

Too often, our responses to current situations are coloured by past memories or future fears. An emphasis on ‘what if’ thinking can lead to catastrophising and a huge fear reaction, based on what MIGHT (or usually, might not) actually happen.

In practice, for example, I often observe massive anxiety from parents who worry in a vicious cycle about what might happen if they get sick with a dread disease, and their children grow up without a mother or father. Or what might happen if the economy goes to wrack and ruin.

But the reality is these people are usually not currently sick, nor are they currently facing financial ruin. Catastrophising can transform a normal degree of concern into crippling anxiety.

Similarly, ruminating about the past can be just as dangerous, as it prevents you from living in the present. People who focus on the past tend to idealise ‘the good old days’, making it difficult to notice or acknowledge positive happenings in the present. This pattern of thinking can then quite easily result in depression.

Remain non-judgemental

Closely linked to the notion of being fully aware and in the present, is that of trying to remain non-judgemental.

Judging implies thinking, and mental verbalising, whereas mindfulness is about simply being. Apart from taking the mind into the past or future, and away from the present, judging is also one of the quickest ways to cause mental and physical distress. The thinking, worrying, and judging of a negative mood or bodily state, transforms one ‘problem’ into two – now you not only have to contend with a negative mood or state, but also the worry about this mood or state.

Judgement has a snowball impact because it is constructed by our thoughts, whereas mindfulness – because it involves simple awareness and observation – provides us with a more realistic, sensory experience. Being based in reality (‘what is’), allows a more realistic response to the situation.

Simple, but not easy

It sounds simple, but the reality is that in order to benefit from MBSR, you have to learn the ropes and practice meditation.

Jon Kabat-Zinn puts it very simply: “You don’t have to like it. You just have to do it.” He has also famously stated that it is simple, but not easy. There is no shortcut.

That said, anyone can learn mindfulness, even children. Start slow, start small, be consistent. Combine it with something you do daily, like brushing your teeth or packing your bag. Then add a five-minute meditation in a specific place during your morning or evening routine.

It is more important to begin and sustain a daily practice than it is to be able to sustain long periods of meditation. You will notice a beneficial effect with just five minutes of daily meditation, and you may well find that it naturally extends to longer meditations.

Being present in the current moment as opposed to worrying about that past or future, also brings a sense of calm and mastery to any situation. Over time, as you become more familiar with the practice, it will become a default reaction to life, especially in emotional situations, when you need it most.

5 Tips to begin mindfulness meditation

As a starting point, however, here are five tips to begin mindfulness meditation:

  1. Take your seat: wherever you are sitting, simply become aware of the feeling of yourself on the seat; what parts of your body are touching the seat and how it feels – doing nothing differently, or feeling you should alter your position. Do this for two minutes, simply being aware, without judging.
  2. Breathe: you are breathing all the time, so this can be done anytime and anywhere. Breathing naturally through your nose, simply bring your attention to the feeling of the air coming in and going out of your nostrils. Observe what it feels like (it can be a little cooler coming in than going out), which part of the nostril it comes into and leaves from. You can also mentally follow the breath down as far as possible.
  3. Eating mindfully: use your senses to observe the shape, colour, texture of a piece of food. Then smell the food, touch and handle the food, and bring it to your mouth. Nibble a little of the food, noticing the way it feels when you take the bite. Moving it around your mouth, savour all the flavours. Then notice the urge to swallow, and follow the food down.
  4. Mindfulness with an object: Pick up an object in your surroundings and look at, as well as handle it, as if you were a two-year-old who had never seen it before. Really allow your mind to become absorbed in exploring the object, without judgement or expectation.
  5. Actively listen: when you are talking with someone, really listen to what they are saying; each word, each nuance. So often we tune out, waiting for them to be quiet so we can speak, or thinking how what they are saying is relevant to us but not really interested in how it is meaningful for them.

Last, but not least, when starting to learn meditation, remember that the mind is like a puppy – it wanders, and it tends to be undisciplined until it has been trained.

Training your mind is not unlike training a puppy – be consistent, be gentle. Judgmental screaming only scares puppies, and it will never encourage the mind to learn a new skill either!

Sources:

  • Barlow, D.H., Ellard, K.K, Fairholme, C.P., Farchione, T.J., Boisseau, C.L., Allen, L.B. & Ehrenreich-May, J.T. (2011). Unified Protocol for Transdiagnostic Treatment of Emotional Disorders. Oxford University Press: USA
  • Jon Kabat-Zinn (Revised Edition, 2013). Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. Bantam Books: USA
  • Zindel, V, Segal, J., Williams, M.G. & Teasedale, J.D. (2002). Mindfulness-based Cognitive therapy for depression. The Guilford Press: New York

by Dr Colinda Linde, a clinical psychologist at Akeso Clinic