The concept of 'mindfulness' is becoming increasingly well known in the west, recognised as a powerful tool to counter anxiety and depression. Yet everyone can benefit from living with awareness, finds Lucia Cockcroft.
Contrary to popular belief, yoga is first and foremost an awareness practice, rather than, as is often believed, a series of stretching movements. Essentially, yoga aims is to still and centre the mind.
On a fundamental level, the practice takes us out of heads, and into our bodies.
In time, the student becomes far more in tune with their reactions, thought processes, and their own physical body.
Many people first come to yoga to help with rising levels of stress and anxiety - with good reason.
Yoga's unique ability to place the practitioner in the current moment, through awareness of the breath, is a powerful weapon against stress. The practice is known to lower cortisol levels and activate the parasympathetic nervous system.
Consider, for a moment, how frequently you are truly present. Without realising it, many of us are at the mercy of our unruly, run-away thoughts, many of which are circular, out-of-perspective and irrational.
For example, ' I wish I had done that differently'; or ''I am dreading that meeting this Friday.'
Mindfulness - being present
Sitting hand-in-hand with yoga, simple mindfulness techniques can be extremely effective in helping people to disassociate from their more destructive, habitual thought patterns; from the ever-chattering monkey mind.
Although mindfulness is rapidly becoming popular in the west, the concept, like yoga, is age-old. It played a pivotal role in the teaching of the Buddha over 2,500 years ago, where 'right mindfulness' was considered a major factor in the path to enlightenment.
More recently, mindfulness caught the attention of the medical world in the 1970s, when, lead by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) emerged as a discipline to help people with chronicle pain manage their condition by learning to react to it in a different way.
Now, at places such as the London Buddhist Centre in Bethnal Green, mindfulness techniques are taught for several applications, including MBCT (Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy) for Depression and mindfulness courses for addiction.
Catherine Grey teaches mindfulness classes to the public, as well as in educational, health and business settings, in London and New South Wales, Australia.
She says the concept of mindfulness is simple, but profound: "I think one of the best descriptions of mindfulness comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn, who describes it as 'paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgemental."
"Becoming aware of anything in our daily life has the capacity to chage the quality of that experience in a way which feels more wholesome, open and soft.
"It's like seeing or hearing something for the first time, before we have had a chance to automatically construct concepts and opinions about it.
"This means we are more in touch with ourselves and are more likely to deal with difficulty in a skilful way."
Mindfulness for everyone
However, it's important to remember that everyone, not just those suffering from anxiety or depression-related conditions, can benefit from living with more awareness.
Rebecca Hardy, a writer from London, says being mindful helps her recognise the real experience and joy of everyday life, freeing her from her "monster monkey mind."
She says: "Worries are just imaginary scenarios we run in our heads about how the future might turn out, and have little basis in reality.
"By 'refusing' to follow those thoughts, we can lead a less worrisome life, focusing on what's happening in the present moment - where we are safe and can take one day at a time."
"Living more in the present moment also puts us in touch with our more 'authentic selves', enabling us to live more intuitively.
"This means we are more likely to make decisions and take paths that are 'right for us', rather than being misled by false projections and imaginary fears."
For example, it is very common to be completely sure that our own interpretation of events is 100% correct - whereas, Hardy says, in reality one's perceived version of events is just a projection that can lead to making unhelpful conclusions.
For example, taking it personally when a friend is abrupt with you on the phone, and concluding that they must be angry. In reality, there are 100 reasons for your friend's manner - she may be busy, or looking after a fractious child.
Cindy Cooper is a mindfulness therapist with London's independent mental health hospital Capio Nightingale Hospital. Cooper, acknowledges that being present to our current experience is a challenge in our fast, instant-fix culture.
"Our society is goal orientated and focused on the future; we are seldom right in the moment - really the only time we have to appreciate things. So we begin to notice how much we are missing from that.
The process of mindfulness is about beginning to notice and to work with what is going on with our minds."
"It doesn't, however, mean that we are trying to stop the mind delving into the past or projecting to the future. We can't control what comes into our heads, but we do have a choice about how we react to what goes on there."
Essentially, being minful and alive to the moment means living life fully, with awareness. Try some of the following tips to get started!
Tips for mindful living
- Though mindfulness is closely linked to meditation, it is also a practice in its own right, and can be done at any time, anywhere: walking, sitting in the car, talking to someone, hearing the birds outside. The crux is to be aware of our present experience.
- Take a few moments out of every day to become aware of your breath. You don't need to change your breath; just notice what happens when you breath - the natural rise and fall of the rib cage; the feel of the breath at the tip of your nose.
- Take a slow walk outside. Leave your mobile phone behind. Intentionally walk slowly, perhaps without a set plan about your route. Just walk with an awareness of what's going on around you, listening to the sounds you can hear, feeling the soles of your feet against the ground.
- Try to be mindful of your thought patterns - especially the destructive ones you may not even be aware of. Can you recognised any repetitive thoughts that are causing you stress? Take some time to de-construct them, asking whether they are really true; and how constructive they are.
- Remember you are in control of how you react to situations and happenings, including your thoughts. Recognise that you are not the sum total of your thoughts; rather, they are fluctuating patterns of energy that can sap your strength and self-esteem if they are not 'skilful', as Buddhists say. In other words, if they are not true.
Books on mindfulness
- The Mindfulness Manifesto, Ed Halliwell and Dr Dr Jonty Heaversedge
- Mindfulness in Plain English, by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana
- The Mindful Way Through Depression by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal and Jon Kabat-Zinn
- Teach Yourself to Meditate, by Eric Harrison
- Buddhism Plain and Simple by Steve Hagen