Mindfulness is a buzz word right now. but what does it actually mean to be mindful?
Jon Kabat-Zinn, who created the eight-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, describes mindfulness as ‘paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.’
Sound easy? Well, try sitting still for five minutes and concentrate solely on your breath.
Think of nothing else. Very soon you realise that your mind has moved away from the breath and has started to plan dinner or to make a list of things to do.
One of the biggest misconceptions many people have about mindfulness meditation is that once they start practising it, their minds will suddenly turn off and they will fall into blissful silence. How shocking to discover that we can’t just make our minds stop planning for the future or thinking about the past, while all the time missing what is happening in the moment.
It is usually at this point that many people give up and think it’s all too hard or that ‘this meditation stuff is not for me'.
Sadly, they are missing the point.
Meditation is about learning how to tame our crazy wild horse of a brain. It’s about learning how to ride the horse and how to rein it in.
Your mind can be a pretty strange place at the best of times.
At worst, it can feel like a prison where you are both the inmate and the jailer. If you have ever experienced an episode of depression or anxiety this description may seem familiar.
Constantly marinating in our own thoughts of fear and terror or judgment and self-loathing creates a physiological stress response in the body. We literally want to fight, run away or play dead—but with ourselves.
This can get acted out as self-harming behaviours, suicidal thoughts and a numbing down of our senses with substances. Over time, all of these coping strategies become unhealthy and dangerous. Seeking support during these times is vital and one option is mindfulness meditation.
Mindfulness teaches us how to activate our body’s very own stress-release button — our parasympathetic nervous system — through breathing and movement. Through meditation you develop stronger concentration. You start to recognise your thoughts, sensations and emotions with more clarity which makes it easier to attend to them before you get caught up or lost in them. You also get an opportunity to learn about your body and how we have evolved to deal with stress.
Did you know that our minds are like velcro to bad experiences and teflon to good experiences?
Our ancient cave-dwelling cousins needed to remember where danger might be lurking.
They had a better chance of survival if they retained the negative experience and learned to react quickly. Positive experiences are not going to kill us so there is no need to store them. It’s simply explained. But in today’s world we need to cultivate positive experiences in our daily lives or else things can start to get, well . . . depressing.
One very simple way to cultivate a positive experience is to S.T.O.P.
- STOP what you are doing
- TAKE a few deep breaths and really feel your whole body breathing
- OBSERVE your senses one at a time – feel the breeze on your skin, the smell of cut grass, the sound of the sea or anything that is around you
- PROCEED with what you were doing
This is a very simple exercise you can do anywhere and at any time.
The few deep breaths immediately activate our natural stress release, which then helps us to move our attention away from stressful thoughts and into the present moment. We are then open to pleasant sensations that give our brains those much-needed yummy experiences while giving us a rest from stressful thoughts.
Curt Mason is a Sydney-based psychotherapist who runs eightweek MBSR programs in his private practice and at ACON. www.therapyspace.com.au