There’s lots written about mindfulness.Most people know it’s a form of meditation.
When I talk to people about mindfulness, they often tell me they tried it, but they couldn’t do it. They tell me that they couldn’t just sit there concentrating on their breathing while their mind was completely empty.
I think this is totally missing the point about how mindfulness works. It also means that if you find it difficult, mindfulness practice could be very beneficial. After all, if you could do it, you wouldn’t need to practice it.
Headspace describes meditation and mindfulness like this:
“Meditation isn’t about becoming a different person, a new person, or even a better person. It’s about training in awareness and getting a healthy sense of perspective. You’re not trying to turn off your thoughts or feelings. You’re learning to observe them without judgment. And eventually, you may start to better understand them as well.
“Mindfulness is the ability to be present, to rest in the here and now, fully engaged with whatever we’re doing in the moment.”
The aim of mindfulness training is not to spend 10 minutes, or 15 minutes or 20 minutes, however long it is, in the present, or concentrating on your breathing or with a blank mind or in some altered state.
That’s not the aim. A lot of people think it is.
That’s not the way to approach mindfulness.
My mind isn’t blank when I do mindfulness exercises
It is about learning to recognize your brain is off somewhere else and bring it back to the present.
As you do the mindfulness exercise, you’ll find your brain (or your mind) starts to wander. You may start wondering what to have for dinner, or reminding yourself that when you finish you must text the plumber or pay that bill.
The aim of mindfulness is to recognise ( as soon as possible) that your mind is wandering and bring it back to the breathing.
You just bring it back to the present without criticising yourself, without getting upset, without getting annoyed. Just bring it back to the present. The aim of the mindfulness session, this bringing your thoughts back to the present, back to the mindfulness session, is so that you can learn to do this in your everyday life. That you can recognize your brain, your mind is off somewhere else, often somewhere stressful, and bring it back to the present in your everyday life.
For example, you could be watching something on TV and then you start to think about something that will happen next day – maybe a visit to the dentist or a meeting with a difficult client.
You start worrying, destroying your enjoyment of the film you’re watching.
What does this worrying achieve? It doesn’t make you better able to deal with the events of tomorrow. In fact, it may make it harder. Mindfulness teaches you to catch yourself thinking about tomorrow and gently let the thought go.
The point of the mindfulness session isn’t the session itself. It’s teaching you how to catch unhelpful thoughts quickly and bring you back to the present in your everyday life.
In a way, a mindfulness session should be seen as being sessions where you repeatedly become aware of your mind wandering and bring it back to the present, so that you can do that in your daily life. Sometimes people say to me:
“Oh, I’ve tried mindfulness. I’m no good at it. I’m constantly having to bring my mind back.”
And my answer is, “Great.” Because you’re learning how to do that. You’re learning how to recognize that you’re thinking about something else and bring your mind back. You’re learning how you’ll be able to do that in your ordinary life.
It’s like going to the gym. I’m a keen gym goer and enjoy weightlifting. While I’m in the gym I’m practicing lifting heavy weight. This makes me stronger in the gym, but it also makes me stronger in my everyday life too.
It’s the constant repetition that happens in the gym that makes me stronger. It’s the same with mindfulness. If you practice bringing your mind back during mindfulness sessions, you’ll find that in everyday life, it becomes easier too.
UW Medicine says:
“While research on mindfulness meditation is still in the early stages, some small, initial studies have found that over time mindfulness meditation may lead to increases in gray matter density in the hippocampus and other frontal regions of the brain as well as increases in anterior insula and cortical thickness.
“Another exciting benefit of mindfulness meditation is that it can deactivate your sympathetic nervous system, or your fight or flight response. “
Jane Hart in writes in the Alternative and Complementary Therapies journal
“There are many innovative efforts today in the field of mindfulness, offered in academic institutions, other medical facilities, and community settings, all of which help to address fears related to chronic illness, trauma, stress, and many other topics for which fear is inherent”
If you practice mindfulness regularly, you’ll get better at parking worries until it’s just an appropriate time to look at them. I actually have a sort of parking area and when I get a persistent worrying type of thought, usually about the future, about what’s going to happen and how bad it’s going to be, I ask myself:
“Is this a useful thought? Is there anything I can do now to change this?”
And if the answer to that is No, then I take that thought and park it. I have a sort of an idea that, when I want to worry about that, I can easily find it again, because it’s in the parking lot. You may find that idea useful too.
Having an image of a physical parking lot or jut being able to set the thought aside becomes easier and easier as you practice mindfulness.
Regular practicing of mindfulness helps you to learn to do that, to recognize that a particular worrying thought, often a repetitive worrying thought, is not appropriate right now. There’s nothing that you can do right now. So you can put it on one side.
Now you won’t get to this after two sessions of mindfulness. You need to do quite a lot but you will get there if you keep up the regular practice. You’ll also get better at recognizing negative self-talk for what it is. You will spend more time in the present and so feel less stressed, less overwhelmed, less always on.
How can I learn mindfulness?
I personally like Headspace. (No financial involvement.) It’s an excellent mindfulness app. You can put it on your smartphone and you can choose to a 10-minute mindfulness or a 15-minute mindfulness exercise or a 20-minute mindfulness exercise. There’s various exercises related to different aspects of your life. Some of them mini-courses (say 10 minutes a day for 10 days) and some single sessions.
Browse the Headspace Library and pick from courses and single meditation sessions to suit your mood and lifestyle. Choose your session length, replay your favourites and learn how to apply mindfulness to your everyday activities.
Headspace currently has more than sixty five ongoing research studies to scientifically validate the Headspace approach to meditation. The majority of these studies are being conducted by external third-party researchers with no association with Headspace.