By Dr Kate Little
All too often we are swept up in our busy lives, rushing from one activity to the next. We operate on autopilot; our thoughts taking control whilst we clean our teeth, brush our hair, take a shower; not really being aware of what we have just been doing.
In one of his talks, John Kabat-Zinn asks the audience an interesting question:
“How many people do you have with you in your shower?!”
I don’t know about you, but I for one, am rarely alone. My virtual notepad is always with me plotting and rehearsing my tasks for the day. Friends, family and colleagues frequently pop by as I think of all the conversations and messages they require. Or I revisit and agonise over an interaction with someone, which hasn’t gone as well as I would have liked. I am mind full.
Most of us spend much of our day absorbed in the personal narrative of our lives. We may worry about the future or obsess about the past. We rarely spend time actually enjoying and appreciating the now.
Mindfulness is about paying attention to the present moment. Feeling the drops of water on our heads as we take our shower. Noticing the tingle in our skin as we massage shampoo into our scalp.
It takes us outside our thoughts, outside that narrative that it is all too easy to get trapped in. And importantly, it allows us to gain some headspace to free up our thinking and perhaps think about some of our problems more creatively, or with a more positive mindset so that they feel less overwhelming.
What can mindfulness help us with?
There is a good evidence base for its use in depression and, more recently, anxiety. It is not a panacea for all problems – it is not appropriate for severe depression, alcohol and drug problems and psychosis. Some studies report it as being as effective as medication, with less side-effects.
Evidence also suggests that mindfulness might help us manage stress better at work.
In addition, research is being conducted into the benefits of mindfulness in schools, after reports from short-term studies of improved psychological wellbeing and attention.
How can I practise mindfulness?
Some people are put off by the thought that you have to sit still and meditate, but this is not necessarily the case.
In the many definitions of mindfulness, some highlight the importance of focussing internally, on our thoughts and body, and some on paying attention externally to what is going on around us, and some on both.
Focussing externally, by being curious, taking notice and appreciating the beauty of the things that surround us can really help us be in the moment. The vibrant colours and unexpected warmth of a sunny autumn day for example.
Or simple objects in everyday life that we normally would pay little attention to, that we sometimes see in a different light, marvelling at them in wonder as if noticing them for the first time.
The Book of Life’s chapter on Appreciation talks about a French writer from the 18th century, Xavier de Maistre, who was wounded in a duel and confined to his bedroom. He recorded a mock-serious journal “A voyage around my bedroom” in which he looked at familiar objects in his room such as a chair and the window as if they were “remarkable novelties”, and this brought him great joy. He came to realise that:
“The key to existence is not to seek out what is actually new. It is to bring a fresh mindset to what we already know but have – long ago – forgotten to notice.”
This focus externally to me represents a kind of mindfulness in action. It does not necessarily involve sitting on a mat or chair. You can be very much be awake and moving, but rather than doing on autopilot, you are fully aware and in the moment.
Focussing internally is about becoming aware of what is going on inside: the sensations in our body and our thoughts. Watching our thoughts as one might observe clouds passing – there’s planning, there’s worry, there’s the critic – helping us to see our thoughts as weather patterns that come and go. Accepting them, rather than fighting them. They, like our moods, will pass.
This can be done in a formal meditation sitting still, alert and aware, allowing the mind to focus internally, but can also be done moving in activities such as mindful walking, Qigong and yoga where the focus is on the breath and/or the body.
Integrating mindfulness into everyday life
This is my challenge. Mindfulness requires practice, like most things that we do. We know that to keep fit, it’s best to work out regularly, and this is the same for mindfulness. We need to practice regularly to train our mind like we would our muscles.
Ways we can do this are to:
Stop briefly for a few seconds throughout your day. Take a few breaths and notice what is present in your body and your mind. Small coloured stickers placed on objects around your house/place of work act as cues to pause.
Take a three-step breathing space (3 minutes)
This is a quick meditation that can be done sitting or standing. I use it to unwind or if I am feeling overwhelmed by everything I need to get done, to re-energise and de-clutter.
Do formal practice (10 minutes)
Using an app such as those mentioned below, or some guided meditations such as those here. Some of these are seated. Some are moving.
Simply take notice.
Pay attention – what is here, now? Be curious. Like our French writer, we may start to appreciate those small things in life by seeing them differently. Practising #3 Good Things can help with this.
Concentrate on listening and engaging rather than letting our minds wander or think ahead to what we are going to say next.
There are many ways to become more mindful and less mind full. Writing this has inspired me to re-engage with my regular practice. I know that it makes a difference!
“Human beings, by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives.”
William James (American philosopher & psychologist)
There are many books about mindfulness. Two that I have found useful are:
Finding peace in a frantic world by Mark Williams & Danny Penman. This has an 8 week course that you can do using a CD and the book. I have completed it and cannot recommend it highly enough.
Sitting still like a frog by Eline Snel (mindfulness for kids). I have tried this when teaching in schools and on my own children. They really love it, finding it very calming and relaxing. It starts to give children an awareness of their bodies and the changes that can happen depending how they feel. They learn to use the breath as a means of grounding themselves.
- Headspace – this seems the most popular amongst people that I know. Dr David Cox, a UK trained doctor, was part of the management team. His interview with Dr Paddy Barrett of the Dr paradox is really worth listening to.
- The mindfulness app