Could mindfulness provide the key to less stressful living? The simple form of meditation, based on Buddhist principles, is fast gaining acceptance as a powerful way of bringing peace to frantic 21st century minds.
Actress Goldie Hawn advocated the technique be taught to children, even before they start formal education. It isn’t just a case of woolly Hollywood liberalism – her MindUP™ programme has conducted solid research, finding that 82 percent of children following the programme become more optimistic and think more positively. They are, quite simply, more happy.
‘Mindfulness techniques are being taught everywhere from schools and hospitals to the workplace now,’ says Jane Matthews, author of Have the Best Year of Your Life (O Books) who incorporates mindfulness into her workshops.
But why the huge upsurge in popularity? ‘It’s an antidote to the way our world is on permanent fast forward,’ she says. ‘There is simply so much to do, to see, to know and to organise that many of us feel as if we are hurtling through our days on automatic pilot. It may not be possible to turn back the clock to simpler times but mindfulness gives us a way of enjoying more of it all while it is happening.’
Mindfulness is meditation, pared of its mystical connotations and honed to slot into the most frenetic Western lifestyle. The idea is simplicity itself – learn how to listen to your mind and body; discover how to be anchored in the ‘here’ and the ‘now’ rather than allowing yourself to be tossed helplessly by the world and time.
The roots of mindfulness lay in Buddhist and yogic practices but it was Jon Kabat-Zinn, an American scientist with a PhD in molecular biology, who dusted it down and adapted it for Western sensibilities. Kabat-Zinn was frustrated at the way doctors could successfully treat patients with chronic physical ailments but, after a while, the problem would recur. He felt sure the answer lay in teaching patients how to kickstart their own healing powers and spent years researching and fine-tuning his method, founding the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School back in 1979.
The results were impressive: mindfulness helped clear psoriasis much faster; it could relieve chronic pain and also lessened feelings of anxiety and depression. Patients whose illnesses ranged from heart disease to ulcerative colitis all benefitted.
‘We teach people to develop and intimacy and familiarity with their own bodies and minds,’ says Kabat-Zinn. ‘This leads to a greater confidence to learn from their symptoms and to begin to self-regulate them.’
Research into mindfulness has continued and results continue to be impressive, notes Jane Matthews. ‘One side-effect of mindfulness’ popularity is that it’s now very much on the radar for researchers,’ she says. ‘A whole series of studies show it has real benefits in reducing stress and anxiety, in helping people cope with depression, eating disorders and other serious medical conditions. They’re also finding that those who practice mindfulness are more relaxed, sleep better, have healthier relationships, improved self esteem and more enthusiasm for life.’
The actual science behind these improvements is slowly starting to reveal itself. A study published in Psychiatry Research:Neuroimaging concluded that an eight week mindfulness practice produced measurable changes in the participants’ brains. It wasn’t a total surprise as previous research had shown there are structural differences between the brains of experienced mindfulness meditation practitioners and individuals with no history of meditation. The brain changes include thickening of the cerebral cortex in the areas associated with attention and the integration of emotions. However in the past researchers had been unable to prove that these differences were actively caused by mindfulness. However in this study, images were taken of the brain structures of the participants two weeks before and two weeks after the eight-week course. Scans were also taken from a non-participating control group.
The meditators spent around 27 minutes a day practicing mindfulness exercises. Their scans showed increased grey-matter density in the hippocampus (an area of the brain known to be important for learning and memory) and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection. ‘It’s fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity,’ says Britta Holzel, PhD, one of the study’s authors and a research fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital (where the study was conducted). ‘And that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life.’
Goldie Hawn agrees wholeheartedly. ‘It’s not all ‘Omm’,’ she says. ‘Mindfulness has a precise neurological effect on the brain. The emotional brain can highjack our thinking but when you practice mindfulness, even if it’s only for a few minutes, the medulla calms down and the pre-frontal cortex lights up. It changes the way the brain works.’
Since Kabat-Zinn launched his programme it has been taken and expanded by many others. For example, Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) was developed at the University of Oxford, Department of Psychiatry specifically to help people suffering repeated bouts of depression. The UK National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) has endorsed MBCT, and research shows that people who have been clinically depressed three or more times (sometimes for twenty years or more) find that the skills learned on the programme reduce considerably the chance that depression will return.
But you don’t need to have a medical condition to benefit from mindfulness. Its simple techniques can help all of us live life with greater certainty and confidence. At its most basic level, mindfulness simply involves stopping every so often and becoming aware of the moment. The easiest way to do this is to focus on your breathing, gently noticing any stray thoughts or worries that emerge. Even a few minutes can make a difference. ‘It can be five minutes or even five seconds,’ says Kabat-Zinn. ‘But for those moments, don’t try to change anything at all. Just breathe and let go. Give yourself permission to allow this moment to be exactly as it is and allow yourself to be exactly as you are.’
Hawn’s MindUP™ programme teaches children mindful listening, seeing, tasting and movement. It develops focus and attention, and helps them sharpens awareness, both of themselves and the world around them, by paying attention to what they sense and feel. Its aim is to teach children from a very early age to get perspective, to be optimistic and to make the most of good experiences.
Hawn explains that, while the immediate focus is on the individual child, the knock-on effect is that this balanced, serene attitude will expand out further into the wider community, fostering kindness, acceptance and a sense of connectedness.
As Jane Matthews points out, this isn’t a case of opting out of life, but opting in. ‘It isn’t so much a case of ‘stop the world, I want to get off’,’ she says. ‘As a way of stepping into the world – and our own lives.’
It may sound hopelessly idealistic but, in a world which increasingly feels like it’s spinning out of control, such a simple and free technique has a definite appeal. A few minutes a day to help us regain peace and perspective? Let’s all breathe…
Making mindfulness work in everyday life
Jane Matthews suggests the following exercises to bring mindfulness easily into your life.
- Wake up a little earlier than normal and, before you even move, notice your breathing. Breathe consciously for a few minutes. Feel your body lying in bed and then straighten it out and stretch, being aware of how it feels to move. Think of the day ahead as an adventure, filled with possibilities. Remember that you can never foretell what the day ahead will hold.
- As often as you can throughout the day, take a few moments to come back into yourself. First, take one or two deep breaths. Next, close your eyes for a moment and ask yourself: ‘What am I hearing; what am I smelling; what am I feeling?’ Enjoy the peace for a minute. Finally gently open your eyes and ask yourself, ‘What am I seeing?’ The whole exercise need take no longer than a minute. If you struggle to remember to do it, maybe set your watch or phone to beep every hour to remind you.
- Set aside a time every day for slightly more formal meditation. Five minutes is fine to begin with – maybe work up to 20 or 30 as you become used to it. Sit comfortably with a straight back and become aware of your breathing. Every time you catch your mind wandering away, just notice and bring it back to the breath.
- Try getting on the floor once a day and stretching your body mindfully, if only for a few minutes. Where does your body hold tension?
- Use ordinary occasions to become mindful, bringing your attention to what you’re doing. When you are in the shower, really feel the water on your skin, rather than losing yourself in internal dialogue. When you eat, really observe and taste your food. Notice how you feel and what you do when the telephone rings. Housework or work activities that you do regularly can easily become opportunities to practice mindfulness.
- Do one thing at a time. One reason we find it so hard to be present in our lives is because there are always half a dozen other things going on in our minds. Multi-tasking can be a curse. Choose to focus on one thing at a time so your attention is not diluted. Switch off phone and email alert so you’re not distracted.
- Be present for other people. How often are you really present for others; really hearing what they are saying? Practice really listening and notice what a difference it makes to your relationships.
- Do what you do with less physical effort. Consciously bring less effort to your activities. Throughout the day, check in with your body and the way it is operating and let go of any tension you notice. Drop your shoulders; loosen your grip on the steering wheel; touch the keys or hold your pen more lightly; allow your breathing to be more relaxed. As you apply less effort you may notice your focus sharpening.
- Practice kindness to yourself. As you sit and breathe, invite a sense of self-acceptance and cherishing to arise in your heart. If it starts to go away, gently bring it back. Imagine you are being held in the arms of a loving parent, completely accepted and completely loved – just as you are.
The Hawn Foundation: www.thehawnfoundation.org
Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT): www.mbct.co.uk
Jane Matthews: www.bestyear.co.uk
Read more about mindfulness in my books The Overload Solution, The Natural Year and Mind Body Spirit. See my author page on Amazon for all my books on natural health and wellbeing.
This feature originally appeared in the Irish Daily Mail