Mindfulness – What is it?
How do you experience the present moment? In fact, do you experience the present moment at all or is your mind planning, thinking, worrying, remembering and in the past and future more than it is in the present? For much of the time, most of us tend to live in a preoccupied state in which the here and now is hardly experienced. Our heads are full of chatter, often ruminating on the past or planning the future. Mindfulness training is a method of mental training that reduces the tendency to go through life on autopilot, by learning to pay more attention to thoughts, feelings and experiences as they arise. In so doing it can change the way we relate to our day to day experiences, relationships and events. Rather than worrying about what has happened or what might happen, mindfulness trains us to respond skilfully to whatever is happening right now, be that good or bad.
It will not eliminate life’s pressures, but it can help us respond to them in a calmer manner that benefits our heart, head, and body. As John Kabat-Zinn wrote in his book ‘Full Catastrophe Living, ‘You can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf’. It helps us to recognise and step away from habitual, often unconscious emotional and physiological reactions to everyday events. Secular mindfulness provides us with a scientifically researched approach to cultivating a calmer mind.
Typical meditations involve focusing your attention on ‘an anchor’ to the present moment. This may be the movement of the breath, or body sensations or sounds. In so doing, it allows you to be an observer to your thoughts, body sensations and emotions as they come and go and you learn that thoughts, just like sounds, are transient and you have a choice as to whether you act on them or not. Developing awareness of our thought patterns and mental habits, with acceptance and self-compassion, helps us to manage difficult experiences, and create space to make wise choices. Respond rather than react to situations as you develop the ability to notice your automatic responses as they arise.
Research shows that it has a beneficial effect both on physical states (e.g. coping chronic pain or illness, high blood pressure) and on psychological states (anxiety, stress and depression). In the UK it is recommended in some areas by the National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) and it is increasingly being used in many areas of life (work place courses, GP run clinics, children in secondary education) to encourage wider uptake of the benefits that it brings to people.
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