When we think of one’s well-being we often think of a person’s physical health, his creature comforts in life, and his relationships with family and friends. A person who has all these must surely be content. Yet we increasingly find that despite health, family, and material extras, people still yearn for something else. That seemingly elusive else is: happiness from peace of mind.
Peace of mind must come from mental well-being. Mental well-being means feeling positive about life and one’s self. To be very mentally healthy, we must seek ways to improve our thought patterns so we can live life the way we want to.
One such way is through the process of mindfulness. The practice of mindfulness meditation is rapidly gaining attention as a proven tool that works to improve one’s state of mind.
What is Mindfulness?
Being mindful is being highly aware…aware of yourself and your environment at the basic level. Mindfulness is purposely paying attention to details existing at the present moment and just experiencing these details as they are, through sight, sound, taste, smell, feel, without judgement colouring the experience.
The concept of mindfulness entails living and experiencing things in the present, without thoughts of the past or future. It is the “now” that mindfulness is concerned with so that one’s attention must be brought to heel to focus on the existing moment.
More than 50% of the time, our mind wanders on other things while we do tasks on auto-pilot. We brush our teeth but we are not aware of how the bristles slide across our teeth to clean them; how the water feels inside our mouths as we swish it around; our breathing when brushing our teeth; etc. Instead, we focus on our afternoon presentation, what the boss will say, or how to sell the policies to Mr. Smith. A million and one things flit across our minds but we do not focus on what we are currently doing which is brushing teeth.
Mindfulness requires us to notice what we normally do not because most of the time, we get caught up with thoughts on what we need to do (the future) or how we had done something (the past). We never live in the moment. This is why in our ever frenetic lives, we hardly get to stop to smell the roses. We forget to just “be.”
Why Should We Be Mindful?
Mindfulness trains our attention and helps us take control over what we want to focus on. Focus control helps us attend to the circumstances at the moment rather than passively allowing our minds to be stressed on the “what-ifs” of the future or the bad experiences of the past. By being mindful, we become more aware of our thought patterns and how it drives our emotions and behaviour.
When we become acutely aware of the present, we tend to perceive things we often miss because these may have become mundane enough to be taken for granted. When we practice mindfulness, we may be pleasantly surprised to find that common everyday things, such as an ordinary bird perched on a bench, can give so much pleasure.
According to Mark Williams, Clinical Psychology Professor at the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, “When we become more aware of the present moment, we begin to experience afresh many things in the world around us that we have been taking for granted.”
He goes further on to say, “Mindfulness also allows us to become more aware of the stream of thoughts and feelings that we experience and to see how we can become entangled in that stream in ways that are not helpful.”
“Most of us have issues that we find hard to let go and mindfulness can help us deal with them more productively. We can ask: ‘Is trying to solve this by brooding about it helpful, or am I just getting caught up in my thoughts?’
Mindfulness as Therapy
Mindful meditation is ancient Buddhist wisdom. One does not have to be a Buddhist to practice mindfulness nor does one need to be in any religion. Mindfulness transcends culture, race, religion, creed, gender, and even age. Children can practice mindfulness. In fact, mindfulness is a child’s innate behaviour which most of us sadly outgrow.
The combination of this ancient practice with 21st century psychiatric science makes for
new kinds of therapy such as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Mindfulness meditation is now is being recognized as a powerful tool in the fields of psychology and psychiatry. It is already recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE).
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy combines the mindfulness techniques of breathing exercises, meditation, and stretching with elements from cognitive based therapy to become an effective treatment for people experiencing recurring depression and for those still feeling after-trauma effects. Research has shown that MBCT has reduced the risk of depression relapses by as much as 43%.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction is particularly focused on relieving chronic stress often detrimental to physical and mental health. It incorporates yoga, meditation, and mind-body exercises. The therapy has had profound positive effects on reducing anxiety levels by 58% percent and stress by 40%.
People who have undergone mindfulness therapy report they experience:
- a large improvement in their abilities to relax
- lasting improvements in physical and psychological symptoms
- improved self-esteem
- more energy
- more enthusiasm for living
- better coping abilities while in short-term or long-term stressful circumstances
Anyone can practice mindfulness anytime and anywhere. Reminding one’s self to notice thoughts, physical sensations, feelings, and being aware of one’s environment at the moment is the first step to mindfulness.
“Just observe your own thoughts. Stand back and watch them floating past, like leaves on a stream. There is no need to try to change the thoughts, or argue with them, or judge them: just observe. This takes practice. It’s about putting the mind in a different mode, in which we see each thought as simply another mental event and not an objective reality that has control over us.” — Mark Williams, Oxford Mindfulness Centre