A Buddhist practice in origin, mindfulness meditation is enjoying fast-growing interest in the West. Taught as a secular practice, open to anyone, its benefits include decreased stress levels, lower blood pressure, and enhanced mental focus. YA editor Lucia Cockcroft - who is co-teaching a yoga and mindfulness retreat in March 2012 - offers an introduction.
"Oh, I have had my moments, and if I had to do it over again, I'd have more of them. In fact, I'd try to have nothing else. Just moments, one after another, instead of living so many years ahead of each day." Nadine Stair, 85 years old, quoted in Jon Kabat-Zinn's seminal Full Catastrophe Living.
A cornerstone of Buddhist philosophy, the ancient practice of mindfulness meditation has been practised in the East for thousands of years.
In the last decade or two - and as science has rubber-stamped the manifold benefits of meditation - this simple, challenging, transformational practice has attracted rapidly-growing interest in the West.
On a clinical level, mindfulness meditation is now taught to those coping with depression, anxiety and addiction (note the highly recommended eight-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course), and practised by anyone seeking greater calmness and clarity. In truth, isn't this everyone?
Life with full attention
Essentially, mindfulness is the practice of becoming fully aware of the present moment, in a non-judgmental way. It is the Art of noticing, and being with, whatever is arising.
Most of us (normally without knowing it) dwell more-or-less continually in the past or future - re-living experiences we can no longer change, or projecting into an unknown future.
Without mindfulness (awareness and full, objective attention), all this mental mulling over can lead to unhelpful habits of ruminating, and dwelling. We can, if we are not careful, unintentionally tie ourselves up in mental knots, with no apparent escape route, and no relief from our own minds.
In many cases, these destructive mental habits can lead to high levels of anxiety, stress and depression - not to mention the increasingly common roll-call of symptoms that go with these conditions (insomnia, high blood pressure, panic attacks are a few).
Thoughts and reality are not the same
The practice of mindfulness brings us into the 'here and now', using simple meditation techniques to foster a non-judgemental, moment-by-moment awareness of the present. And so we begin to see thoughts for what they are: just thoughts.
Unless we are careful, we have an unquestioning tendency to believe our thoughts. We mistake them for reality. And so, a casual thought observation such as 'he or she doesn't like me any more', becomes mistaken for the absolute truth.
And the more we dwell on this thought, the more ingrained it becomes in our minds. Before we know it, we have convinced ourselves that this thought is the truth. In yoga philosophy, these habitual 'groves' of thinking are called Samskaras.
Neuroplasticity and change
The good news is that science has recently discovered the concept of 'neuroplasticity': the capacity of the brain and nervous system to change (only 30 years ago, it was assumed that this was not possible), according to experience and/or environment.
Through the practice of meditation, we can train the mind to find new - more helpful - ways of working, and carve out new neural pathways.
On a practical level, by practising mindfulness, we are giving ourselves the space to become in tune with our own thought patterns, or 'conditioning'. In time, with much practice and patience, we can foster great mental clarity, focus and perspective.
At the same time, by become more accepting of our experiences, we can become more open-hearted and less reactive - leaving room for compassion towards ourselves, and others.
It is tempting to wonder how different the world would be if every person - including (or particularly!) politicians - practised mindfulness daily.
Here are two simple mindfulness practices:
1) Mindful walking
Mindfulness can be practised at any time, anywhere: the point is to be present as possible as you go about everyday living. Walking meditation is a great way of practising - and often easier than sitting still. The length and route of walk is irrelevant. In fact, true mindful walking is without agenda.
- Leave your mobile phone and iPad at home.
- Begin walking with a tall posture, shoulders relaxed. Walk slowly.
With every step, be aware of the tread of your foot on the ground: toes, ball of foot, heel. Also be present to the touch of the breeze against your skin.
- Be aware of sensations - sights, sounds, smells. Let everything into your field of awareness, with reacting to anything. Simply be in the moment.
Let go of any fixed route. Simply walk for walking's sake, noticing whatever arises.
2) Three minute breathing space
The Breathing Space is a mindfulness practice that offers a way to reconnect with the present moment, and to your experience. It can be practised anywhere, at any time, and doesn't need to be three minutes - this is just a guide.
- Sit or stand with a tall spine. Close your eyes or keep a soft half gaze. Feel the body grounded. Begin to notice the nature of your current experience: tune in with your bodily sensations, your thoughts and feelings. Notice the texture of your experience without becoming drawn into it, or pushing it away.
- Come kindly back to this broad, soft awareness, whenever you notice you are becoming entangled with thoughts or worries. If you find yourself distracted a thousand times, come back gently to the present, a thousand times.
- After a minute or so, gently redirect your attention to your breath - to each inbreath, and each outbreath. Again, just notice your breathing: its speed, texture, quality; and where you can feel the breath most alive in the body. Your breath is an anchor to bring you back to the present.
- Keep coming back to the sensation of the breath, whenever you become aware of being distracted. Do this with kindness, without judgement.
- Expand the field of your awareness around your breathing, so that you become aware of your whole body: your posture, breath, facial expression. Gently broaden your focus to notice the nature of your whole experience, also noting sounds and sensations playing out around you. Hold everything in your awareness, with equanimity.
- Do this practice at any time in the day, or night, when you feel you could benefit from feeling more grounded and relaxed.
Want to know more?
- The Mindful Manifesto: How doing less and noticing more can help us thrive in a stressed-out world. By Dr Jonty Heaversedge and Ed Halliwell
- Wherever You Go, There You Are. By Jon Kabat-Zinn
- Mindfulness in Plain English. By Bhante Henepola Gunaratana
Yoga and mindfulness weekend retreat:
Together with Shamash Alidina, author of Mindfulness for Dummies, Lucia is co-teaching a mindfulness retreat in rural Suffolk over the weekend of March 10-12th, 2012 - for details and online booking, see www.ya-retreats.co.uk
Find a course on mindfulness and/or learn more:
See this excellent site, of the Mental Health Foundation: www.bemindful.co.uk