Mindfulness is a deceptively simple practice, which has become very popular in recent times:
Paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally. ~ Jon Kabat-Zinn
While this sounds like it should be easy, and in many ways it is, there are also some serious obstacles to achieving this goal.
Top among them is your brain’s capacity for thinking. Whether you call it wool-gathering, worrying, rumination, planning, or anything else, the fact is that you can very easily head off somewhere in your mind that isn’t right here and right now. And judgement is something your mind is also very adept at jumping into!
The benefits of mindfulness
Mindfulness was created as a scientific, secular version of meditation by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Introduced to buddhist meditation practices while studying for his PhD at MIT in the late sixties, Kabat-Zinn realised the practice was extremely powerful. However, while it remained attached to its hippy, religious roots he believed it would never be taken seriously. So, he devised his ‘Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction’ program, delivered first at the University of Massachusetts.
Given this scientific emphasis, a lot of research has been done on mindfulness. Using both Random Control Trials and fMRI scans, mindfulness has been proven to:
- Reduce stress
- Boost the immune system
- Calm the autonomic nervous system
- Aid with chronic pain
- Increase focus and attention, and improve memory (including in Alzheimer’s patients)
- Assist with insomnia
- Reduce addictions and obesity
- Manage depression, anxiety, anger, panic attacks and PTSD
- Boost creativity, well-being, relaxation and calm
Obstacles and stumbling blocks
There are a lot of misconceptions around mindfulness that can stop people from using this beneficial practice. Let’s take a look at some of those:
- You have to clear your mind – as mentioned before, your brain is designed to think. That’s what it does, and it does so well. Trying to turn off your mind is a fairly pointless exercise, and to practice mindfulness you do not need to ’empty your mind’. Instead, the idea is to focus your thinking and attention on experiencing something in the present moment, and staying with that. It could be your internal physical sensations, it could be your breath, it could be your senses perception of the world. In this, your mind is acting like a lens, focusing your attention rather than allowing all that brain power to scatter off in a million directions. It still may not always be an easy task, but it’s not an impossible one!
- You have to feel everything all the time – while the practice of mindfulness is about being aware in the present moment, you don’t have to be aware of everything at the same time. Equally, you don’t have to practice mindfulness at all times. The reason why this stumbling block can feel difficult is if you have aspects of your life that feel painful or scary, including memories. For example, if you suffer from past trauma or PTSD, it is not recommended that you be mindful around a traumatic trigger, at least until you have become proficient at meditating. You may also first want to take the edge off the trigger using some other method such as tapping (EFT) or eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR).
- Mindfulness solves all problems – somewhat related to the last point, people sometimes expect too much of mindfulness. It is not a panacea or cure-all. In some circumstances, other techniques may be more helfpul. And also, it may be necessary to take action, as well as just being mindful. For example, if you suffer from panic attacks and just focus on what you are experiencing, you may actually make the symptoms worse. However, if you use mindfulness to help you be more aware when a panic attack is coming on, and to put in place other coping strategies, such as distraction techniques and breathing techniques, then it is extremely useful to avoid a panic attack before it becomes full-blown.
- ‘I’m just not good at it’ – many people try a mindfulness practice, and then quickly give up. The benefits of mindfulness are worth putting in some time and effort. It takes discipline and repetition to reap the benefits, and the practice may not feel easy straight away, or may not feel easy on a given day. That doesn’t mean that you are no good at it. It just means that you may need to alter how you are practising, or keep at it a bit more to build your mindfulness ‘muscles’.
- ‘It’s too challenging’ – related to the last stumbling block, there can be a lot of ways in which mindfulness challenges you. For example, sitting still can be difficult, or uncomfortable. However, you can see these challenges as opportunities. If you can stay with the discomfort, be mindful of what is uncomfortable, the sensations will actually diminish. This is precisely why mindfulness is so useful with pain. Learning that you can sit with pain or discomfort, and that it does not need to affect what you do or feel, is beneficial. And the more willing you are to feel the sensations, the more their effect on you is actually reduced. You can ask yourself where, exactly, to the milimetre, the pain or discomfort is located. As you try to find its exact centre or core, you may notice that you cannot, and that all of it has diminished in the process.
- ‘If I change, who will I be?’ – this question underlies a lot of worrying about mindfulness. For some people, this is connected with the idea of meditation as a spiritual practice, for others even a secular version brings this worry. One thing to keep in mind here is that mindfulness will not change your deepest self. In fact, it will make you more truly yourself. That may mean that you shift how you view yourself and the world. In any case, though, you will still be you, and you still have the power to decide what you choose to do or not do, to think or to say.
- ‘Mindfulness is boring’ – an interesting phenomenon is that the more you pay attention to anything, the more richness and texture you find in it. Paying attention with gentle acceptance opens up your experience. Deepening your mindfulness thus makes anything you focus on more interesting, rather than the simple being boring. Who knew that you could feel so many textures in the clothes you are wearing brushing against your skin? A second point here is that there are a large number of different ways to practice mindfulness, different things to place your attention and focus on. If one does not work for you, just try another. There is sure to be something that will delight you!
- You have to close your eyes – shutting your eyes can be a helpful way to narrow your focus, which is one of the aspects of mindfulness. However, if you don’t want to close your eyes for whatever reason (it can be psychologically difficult for people with past trauma, or physically difficult for people with inner ear issues) you don’t have to. One recommendation if you are goint to keep your eyes open is to ‘soften your gaze’. For example, defocus your eyes, looking a bit ‘beyond’ whatever you are looking at. In this way, you remove some of your attention from what is in front of your eyes, while still keeping them open. Another approach is to actually make what you are looking at your focus. You can look at a specific image, or a common practice is gazing at a candle. It’s amazing how many different colours, parts and how much movement there is in a candle flame when you really focus on it!
- You have to sit still – sitting is another way of narrowing your focus. When your body is still, it is easier to focus your senses as they are not being bombarded with cues about movement and what you are passing. However, it is not necessary to sit to be mindful. In fact, Jon Kabat-Zinn recommends alternating ‘sitting’ with yoga, both of which can be done in mindful ways. And yoga is mostly done with eyes open. Equally, you can do a walking meditation with eyes open.
- You have to practice for a long period of time – while Jon Kabat-Zinn asks participants in his programme to dedicate at least 45 minutes a day to mindfulness, this is not necessary to gain benefits. Some recent studies have shown that short periods of mindfulness can also be effective. And these are especially beneficial if you can do short bursts several times a day. One analogy is to think of the ruminating voice in your head as a song or playlist. If you turn it off for 45 minutes, you will break the pattern of worrying quite significantly for that time. However, if you keep putting in small breaks, you also make more and more space for other ways of being. Short episodes of a different way of being add up over time. So whether it’s five minutes a day for a year, or five minutes a day, three times a day, for a few months, the practice will be effective. And you may find that you enjoy it and want to build these moments of mindfulness to ten or fifteen, or more. Whatever you do is fine, and it will all be beneficial!
How to practice
There are many different ways to practice mindfulness. Here is a short list of some of them:
- Breathing – really, this could be divided into several categories. You can count your breath in several different ways, you can breathe in different patterns, and you can use words or images to focus on in time with your breath. Breathing alone offers a large variety of forms of mindfulness practice!
- Body scan
- Expanding awareness
- Feeling into pain
- What else is here – eyes open
- Candle gazing
From this, you can see just how varied mindfulness can be. If one practice doesn’t work for you, try another. The benefits are definitely worth it!
How I can help
Having someone guide you in your mindfulness practice is beneficial in a number of ways:
- Especially at the start, or if you are suffering from brain fog or a scattered thinking process, it may feel really hard to keep your focus. Having someone else to keep bringing you back to the practice means you spend less time worrying that you’re doing it wrong or are no good at it or just can’t do it.
- Sometimes, a mindfulness practice that expands your awareness may bring up painful aspects of the past. The first thing to know is that your mind is excellent at shutting out anything you cannot bear. If something comes up, your mind has deemed that you can cope with it, even if it feels hard. However, having someone else to support you in the process can ease you through it more quickly and smoothly. I have a number of tools to help work through painful or difficult memories or past traumas, to release these rapidly and gently.
- If one practice does not suit you, having someone to suggest and guide you through another can help keep you on track. In this way, you can find what works best for you!
- When you are new to the practice, or if you feel unmotivated or struggle with self-discipline, having a guide also acts like an accountability buddy. Knowing someone else is there to motivate you helps keep you on track.