What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness, while a relatively new concept in the Western World has in fact been a way of life for many generations stemming originally from a Buddhist Tradition. One of the pioneers for Mindfulness in the developing world is Jon Kabat Zinn. He has written quite a number of books including “Full Catastrophe Living - How to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfulness meditation”. He is a Scientist and a professor of medicine, has studied Buddhism in all its forms and found mindfulness to be a technique that he felt could be used in the management of stress anxiety pain and illness. He opened a stress reduction clinic in the US using mindfulness techniques to help his patients. He combined the buddhist way of teaching with his own scientific knowledge to not only allow patients to believe and through faith but to show them scientific proof that using mindfulness on a daily basis can be proven to help increase the bodies immunity and brain function in positive ways and how it promotes right sided brain activation which is associated with positive mood. So even though its called Mind-ful-ness it in fact helps you to empty your mind of unnecessary negative thoughts.
How research has shown that mindfulness has the power to alter brain activity
A recent study has shown that as little as eleven hours of mindfulness produced structural changes in neural pathways connecting part of the prefrontal cortex, the logical brain (specifically the ACC – anterior cingulate cortex) to the amygdala which is the part of our brain geared towards sensing danger. The amygdala tends to react quicker than our pre-frontal cortex which is the part of the brain responsible for logical thought. Therefore before our logical brain has a chance to sum up a situation, our more primitive, reactive brain has sparked off a chain of neurochemical processes which alert the body to danger. This is what is known as the fight or flight mode. (Tang et al 2007)
In 2007 a study by Jain and Shapiro showed that mindfulness meditation may be specific in its ability to reduce distractive and ruminative thoughts and behaviours.
A study by Brown in 2003 found declines in mood disturbance and stress following mindfulness interventions.
In 2009 Garland found declines in Stress after mindfulness interventions which they deemed were potentially due to the positive reappraisals of what were at first appraised as stressors
Davidson (2003) found that mindfulness meditation increased brain and immune functions in positive ways and promotes right sided brain activation which is associated with positive mood.
Thoughts are not Facts – How we can observe ourselves and wake up our Automatic Pilot
Our thoughts are a very powerful part of who we are, but it is important that they are recognised as only a part of who we are. Many people feel their thoughts control who they are when in fact we are all in control of our thoughts. We may not choose which thought enters our head but we can choose what thoughts we invite to stay. The first step here is to become aware that our thoughts are separate. Try sitting in silence and observing your thoughts. Unless you are a frequent meditator and have developed the ability to slow down your thinking most of you have busy minds with lots of thoughts occurring non stop. Try to observe yourself the thinker. Just as you sit now close you eyes and observe your thoughts. What are you thinking? Perhaps, I hate doing this. I don’t understand this. This is quite interesting. Just observe the thoughts and observe yourself the thinker. Are your thoughts negative or positive. Those with negative thoughts how are these thoughts making you feel? Is it time to change the thought? Is it time to decide you no longer want negative thoughts or the feelings they bring? Do you feel its within your power to change these thoughts? Yes it is. You can indulge negative thoughts or you can choose to move away from them. This will take practice in observing your self and your thoughts and taking control of them. In doing this exact exercise you are practising mindfulness in the form of mindful thinking. You can carry this through into all aspects of your day including mindful waking, mindful eating, driving etc.
So what you have just done is you have woken up your automatic pilot. We tend to be on automatic pilot for such much of each day. We wake up we get up we get showered dressed eat breakfast all on automatic pilot. You know sometimes you cant remember if you did simple things like flushing the loo, locking the door, turning off the heat, putting on the alarm all things we do on automatic pilot.
All planes today function a lot on automatic pilot. They all have the ability with technology to take off fly and land without input from a pilot. But would you feel safe getting on a plane knowing that there were no pilots in the cockpit. No of course you wouldn’t. So why conduct your daily life on automatic pilot. Why not be more present, more alert, more aware, more MINDFUL.
90% of unhappiness does not arise from the circumstances of your life but from your thoughts around them. The unhappiness is caused by the mental commentary around the situations we find ourselves in. For example what happens if you’re in a traffic jam or standing in a queue. Your mind tells you how awful the situation is then you begin to feel awful. That’s the time to ask yourself ‘Is the way I feel caused by my circumstances or is it caused by my thoughts? Have I added unhappy thoughts to the present moment.
Daily Mindfulness Techniques and tips on how to put them into practice
One of the first things to put into practice is to learn to observe your thoughts. Be your own observer of yourself. You have the choice to indulge negative thoughts or to direct your attention away from unnecessary thinking or whats known as overthinking. It is this overthinking that is the main cause of anxiety and worry. So step one is to observe.
Instead of indulging negative thoughts direct your attention to your breathing. Breathe in think about the air entering our bodies, breathe out. The moment you do this you have taken the attention away from thinking. When you are fully in the present moment thinking actually subsides momentarily.
Appreciate the Positive
Appreciating the positive in your life takes your focus away from the negative. Appreciating a warm bed, good friends, supportive family, blue skies, nature.
Practice mindful living from the moment you wake in the morning. Be aware of your body when you wake, be aware and thankful of your ability to get up, go about your morning activities in awareness, brushing your teeth, showering, feel the water on your body, be aware of the toothbrush in your mouth, be conscious of flushing the toilet, locking the door, turning on the alarm. So often we are down the road and wondering if we locked the door or turned on the alarm because we spend so much of our time on auto pilot. Be mindful when eating breakfast, feel the food in your mouth, feel the texture of the food, be conscious, be aware.
The Raisin Meditation
The raisin meditation involves mindful eating of a single raisin – paying full attention for several minutes to the tasting of one raisin. With your eyes closed, first pay attention to the smell of the raisin and to its texture. Then introduce the raisin onto your tongue, concentrating your attention for a little while on simply feeling the sensation of the raisin as you explore it with your tongue. Finally bite into and chew the raisin very very slowly, savouring the texture and full taste for another period, what its doing to your mouth before finally swallowing.
It is a powerful lesson in how much we miss of the everyday things we do. Raisins are so insignificant we are used to eating them while doing something “more important”.
If it was only the taste of a raisin we were missing this might not matter too much. But once you see the difference that paying full attention can make to the small things in life, you start to get an inkling of the cost of inattention.
Bringing ‘raisin mind’ to other activities in your day
Choose an activity you normally do each day, such as getting dressed showering or brushing your teeth and see if you can bring what we will call ‘raisin mind’ to that activity over the next week.
For example, if you choose to bring ‘raisin mind’ to showering then try to really pay attention to what the water feels like on your skin and hair. Notice the movement of your hands as you wash, take in the smell of the soap or bodywash.
When your attention wanders off into thinking about other things (as it surely will) then notice what you were thinking about and then gently bring yourself back to the sensations of showering.
It sounds very easy but for most people this is a surprisingly difficult exercise – take heart that there is a powerful lesson to be learned from the struggle to stay present. Through this exercise we learn just how much of our time is spent in the past or in the future and how much we are missing the present moment.
And remember: Happiness cannot be found in the past or the future, it can only be experienced in the present moment, the only moment in which we are alive.”