"What is Mindfulness?" - 02 March 2017
Is it the latest health craze, a Buddhist meditation in disguise or simply a clever business idea? Whose advice can you trust and what can you expect?
I was curious. And whilst I had read a little about it and seen it work for other people, I wanted to know for myself. And I wanted more than just to know – I wanted to experience what it’s like.
So I enrolled on an 8 week course in Mindfulness at the Oxford Mindfulness Centre.
My experience of Mindfulness
We met in a nice and airy new building – peaceful and welcoming for sure. Along with me were 10 equally nervous people. I started to think: what am I in for? What on earth will we do for a whole 2 hours each week?
Before long we are launched straight into the first exercise. A body scan. Ok, that doesn’t sound too weird. Simply focusing on different parts of your body and your breathing. But wait – how long for? 40 minutes? Seriously? At least I can decide if I want to sit or lie down. And then suddenly the bells begin to sound. I had been bracing myself, and actually, I can see why they are used. You can lose yourself in the sound, listening as the edges fade into the distance. But aside from that there is no Buddhist connotation to be found. It's more of a western take on meditation I guess.
Once the bells fade a lovely calm voice begins to talk us through what we are supposed to focus on: the focus in on individual parts of our body - starting with the toes. Halfway through the foot I am already off on a tangent, wondering how many minutes in we are by now. Wondering if each body part will take this long. Talking of long – the traffic en route was terrible. That makes me a little concerned about if I will get to my next appointment on time… By the time I realise that my mind has wandered we've moved on to the knee…
After the exercise we take time to reflect and as the others are sharing their experiences I feel a sense of relief as it turns out it wasn’t just my mind going AWOL! Apparently it is quite normal and happens a lot in mindfulness – this mind-wandering. In fact, as we become more mindful we become more aware of it which is one of the purposes of the exercise.
The two hours pass surprisingly quickly. But if I thought the 40 minutes was long I am in for a shock!
I leave with a CD and a series of exercises to practice during the week for 1 hour per day. The exercises range from noticing and noting down nice experiences throughout the day, doing brief 3 minute interventions to – wait for it – the 40 minute body scan. Every day. For 2 weeks. And then another exercise of similar length for the weeks after.
It might just be my perfectionist streak, but if I commit to something I tend to do it whole heartedly.
So I do put the hours in, despite that being hard work at times. And this is some of what I found…
Mindfulness - what it is…
Mindfulness in essence brings us back to being in the present moment rather than rushing ahead of ourselves or worrying about the past. It is about living in the NOW. It is scientifically proven to: reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, help with chronic pain as well as with addictive behaviours which is why it is widely used in the NHS.
I did find that with practice I was astonished to note how much my mind is all over the place and can get easily hooked on certain thoughts and experiences. Over time I was able to notice more quickly when my mind is going off on a tangent and bring my attention back to what I am doing.
Mindfulness - what it looks like…
Mindfulness exercises can have very different forms. There are short exercises lasting 1-3 minutes and interventions of up to 30-40 minutes in length. Traditionally these can focus on our breathing and what that feels like in the body. But they can also be rooted in noticing everyday things such as the sensation of walking, what sunshine feels like on the skin, the everyday noises that surround us at any given time or which incidents cause us to smile or make our bodies tense.
There is also a practice called mindful eating which focuses on noticing and getting full enjoyment from the foods we are eating rather than popping food in our mouths without paying attention. (Such as when slouching on the sofa in front of the TV with a packet of crisps or popcorn…)
I actually really enjoyed the large variety of exercises and how easily they can be integrated into your day. The 3 minute breathing space literally can be done while sitting on the bus, in front of the computer, standing in the queue at the supermarket or anywhere really and can help to centre your mind. The longer exercises are ones you may need to carve out time for more but it can really be worth it.
Mindfulness – what it does…
Mindfulness is supposed to be most beneficial if practised regularly. According to Professor Mark Williams, one of the trusted big names and a key figure behind the Oxford Centre of Mindfulness, continuous practice for a minimum of 8 weeks is necessary to start seeing results. Because, at the end of the day, the mindful direction of attention is like exercising a muscle, like a brain gym in order for us to be better able to direct our focus to where we want it to be. So in essence the message is: the more we use it the better it gets. Celebrities such as Emma Watson have found it helpful in balancing stressful lives. And Ruby Wax is one of many who has found it helps her in dealing with the depression she encounters.
“I am able to separate myself a little from all those abusive thoughts… With the mindfulness practice I can say “This is depression” rather than “I am depressed””.
What has Mindfulness changed for me?
I find that I am able to notice more quickly when I am tired or when my body gets tense in response to a difficult phone call. I now stop and take a deep breath rather than continuing to be worked up.
And I cherish the nice experiences more – like the cold breeze in contrast to the warm winter sun against my skin on a recent walk.
So if you are curious about Mindfulness – why not give it a go? You can find some trusted websites and resources listed below. I’d encourage you to try it out a few times, not just as a one off!
Whether it's the latest health craze, meditation in disguise or a clever business venture - I have found that Mindfulness has enabled me to take better care of myself in the here and now. And to my own surprise I have really taken a liking to the 40 minute body scan!
Mindfulness and Mediation
- Mindfulness – A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World (with CD for exercises) M Williams & D Penman
- Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation for Everyday Life, Jon Kabat-Zinn (2004)
- Full Catastrophe Living, Jon Kabat-Zinn (1990)
- The Joy of Half a Cookie. Using Mindfulness to Lose Weight and End the Struggle with Food, Jean Kristeller (2015)
- Mindful Eating (including a CD of mindful eating exercises) J.C. Bays (2009)
- Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat, M. May (2010)
- Eating Mindfully, Susan Albers (2003)
Written by Frauke Eicker