Bringing Mindfulness into Everyday Life
We spend our lives wanting to be happy but end up chasing our own tails. We project happiness off into the future, promising ourselves that we would be happy if only we could win the lottery, get a better job, a nicer house, less stress, more money… Yet the key to true happiness lies, not in the external world but deep within. We can’t necessarily change our circumstances but the one thing we can change is how we react to them. Mindfulness is a concept dating back thousands of years that seems tailor-made for today.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a vital strand in Vedic meditation techniques and also a crucial part of Buddhist practice. However, it can also be found in a wide array of other faiths, including Christianity, Sufism, and Judaism. The original aim was to reach an awareness of our true nature, connected with all of creation. However, our mindful ancestors discovered other, more pragmatic, benefits. If we focus on the present moment, anxiety about the future and sadness or frustration with the past simply vanishes.
History of Mindfulness
Mindfulness broke free of all its mystical and religious affiliations in the 1970s. Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn, a scientist with a Ph.D. in molecular biology, was introduced to meditation by Philip Kapleau, a Zen missionary. Kabat-Zinn was fascinated by how meditation seemed to affect people physically as well as mentally so he plunged deeper into his research, studying with Thich Nhat Hanh and other teachers. In 1979, he founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and started teaching what he called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).
Benefits of Mindfulness for Disease
While doctors could treat patients with chronic physical ailments, over time their problems simply came back. Kabat-Zinn felt sure that the answer lay in putting patients in the driving seat, teaching them simple techniques to heal themselves. So he instructed people with illnesses ranging from heart disease to ulcerative colitis, from diabetes to cancer. “We teach these people to develop an intimacy and familiarity with their own bodies and minds,” he explains. “This leads to a greater confidence to learn from their symptoms and to begin to self-regulate them.”
The results were impressive. Mindfulness was, indeed, able to help relieve chronic pain and soothe feelings of anxiety and depression. Psoriasis in particular responded well with patients able to clear the skin condition much faster. Studies have since found that mindfulness can ease insomnia, support weight management, and help reduce depression, anxiety, and stress. It is also proving very helpful in treating addiction, ADHD and shows promise for people suffering psychosis.
Furthermore mindful techniques seem to influence our immune system and they may even have the potential to affect how our genes express themselves (epigenetics).
How does mindfulness work?
So how does this simple technique actually work? Brain imaging shows that people who practice mindfulness have much less activity in those parts of the brain that notice emotions and sensations which leads researchers to believe that mindfulness can reduce the emotional experience of pain.
Tools such as fMRI also show that various regions of the brain are altered by regular mindfulness practice. Overall the connection between the fear center of the amygdala and the rest of the brain becomes weaker, while the connection between the prefrontal cortex (which regulates emotions) and the rest of the brain becomes stronger – suggesting that mindfulness reduces fearful and anxious responses while enhancing a more reasoned and thoughtful approach to life.
In addition, mindfulness induces the well-known ‘relaxation response’, triggering the parasympathetic nervous system (rest, relax, repair) as opposed to the sympathetic nervous system (flight, fight, freeze). Reducing the stress response has a knock-on positive boost for health, making us far less likely to experience high blood pressure, insomnia, cardiovascular problems, digestive issues, diabetes, and mental health issues.
Kabat-Zinn points out that most of us live our lives in a state of virtual unconsciousness, constantly projecting into the future or pondering the past. “The days, months, and years quickly go by unnoticed, unused, unappreciated,” he says. “Mindfulness, however, provides a simple but powerful route for getting ourselves unstuck, back into touch with our own wisdom and vitality. It is a way to take charge of the direction and quality of our own lives. It is the direct opposite of taking life for granted.”
Mindfulness is one of the simplest self-help tools: all it involves is stopping and becoming aware of the moment. Start by focusing on your breathing, gently releasing any stray thoughts or worries that emerge. Kabat-Zinn asks his patients to strive for 45 minutes of mindfulness a day but he points out that even a few minutes will make a massive difference. “It can be five minutes or even five seconds,” he says. “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.”
Emotional Benefits of Mindfulness
While mindfulness may be simple, it’s not necessarily easy. Sometimes the very act of stopping and listening can trigger emotions we have squashed down: grief, sadness, anger, and fear that we have unconsciously suppressed, often over many years. The advice is to allow the emotions to emerge, witnessing them, letting them move through us. However, if you feel overwhelmed by your emotions it would be advisable to consult a therapist.
Kabat-Zinn says that one of the unexpected benefits of mindfulness is that it allows us to discover what we really want in life; our true “Path with a capital P” as he puts it. It allows us to drop feelings of inadequacy and self-dislike, fostering instead self-esteem and courage. As Kabat-Zinn puts it: “Mindfulness is a roadmap to our radiant selves, not to the gold of a childhood innocence already past but to that of a fully developed adult. It is a way of walking along the path of life and being in harmony with things as they are.”
Mindfulness for everyday living
Experiment with these simple ways to introduce mindfulness into your daily routine
Wake up a little earlier than normal and, before moving, breathe consciously for a few minutes. Feel your body lying in bed and then straighten it out and stretch. Think of the day ahead as an adventure, filled with possibilities. Remember you can never really know what the day will hold.
Stop and sit.
Have small pauses through the day when you stop, sit down, and become aware of your breathing. It can be for five minutes or even five seconds. Just breathe and let go, allow yourself to be exactly as you are.
Start a formal practice.
Set aside a time every day to just be: five minutes would be fine to start – gradually build up to 20 or 30. Sit and become aware of your breath. Every time your mind wanders, simply return to the breath.
Who am I?
Use your mindfulness time to contemplate what you really want from life. Ask yourself questions like, “Who am I?”; “Where am I going?”; “If I could choose a path now in which direction would I head?”; “What do I truly love?” You don’t have to come up with answers, just keep asking the question.
Get onto the mat.
Try getting down on the floor once a day and move your body mindfully. Don’t force yourself into classic yoga poses – tune in and listen to what your body wants to do. Stay in touch with your breathing and listen to what your body has to tell you. Above all be kind and compassionate with your body.
The mindfulness of tiny things.
Use ordinary occasions to become mindful. Become mindful when you’re brushing your teeth – feeling the brush against your gums, the taste of the toothpaste, how you’re standing, how the water feels. Or pick a flight of stairs to be mindful of going up and down. Or maybe make your cup of tea a mindful experience. Notice how you feel as you stand in the supermarket queue.
Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that we should use the ring of a phone to practice mindfulness. ‘It’s our natural urge to jump when the phone rings, racing to pick it up,” he says. “Try resisting the urge. Whenever your phone rings, just sit and breathe in and out for around three breaths.”
Practice kindness towards 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.
Jane Alexander is an expert on wellbeing and spirituality. She is the author of over twenty non-fiction books in the field of mind, body, spirit, and wellbeing. Her work has appeared in the Daily Mail, Telegraph, Express, Guardian, Times, Evening Standard, YOU magazine, ELLE, Cosmopolitan, Women & Home, and many more. Jane aims to inspire people to make practical changes that support health and happiness.
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