What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness teaches us to direct our attention to what is happening right here, right now, with an attitude of kindness towards ourselves and our experience. This “being with” ourselves is in contrast with more habitual states of mind in which we are often preoccupied with memories, fantasies, worries or planning. Yet, the capacity to be present is innate to each one of us and can be deliberately cultivated, alongside our capacity for kindness. Although we are often unaware of the current of our thinking, it has a profound effect on how we live our lives, as well on our mental and emotional health.
What Mindfulness Is Not:
Mindfulness is not positive thinking.
Mindfulness is not about having only good feelings. It does not help us to get rid of unwanted feelings, but to actually feel them. That is why it is often said that mindfulness is not for the fainthearted, and that it can be stressful to do an MBSR course! Our usual reaction to uncomfortable or distressing feelings is to push them away and try to get rid of them. With mindfulness we learn to turn towards the difficulties, challenges and pain in our lives, because they are here anyway, with an attitude of allowing and kindness.
This is a gentle process, not a forceful one, and it happens gradually as we build emotional strength and resilience. Resistance and avoidance require a lot of energy and when we learn to soften them a little and actually allow ourselves to be as we are, and our experience to be as it is, we find that we free up a lot of energy which can now go into seeing more clearly, making wiser choices and taking wiser action.
Mindfulness is not relaxation.
Becoming more relaxed may be a welcome by-product of mindfulness practice, but it is not the aim. As we develop mindfulness we begin to see our lives, our behaviours and relationships more clearly and this is not always easy.
That is why the attitude we bring to the practice is one of kindness, patience and self-compassion. For further reading, a very interesting article appeared on the Huffington Post recently that discussed 11 common misconceptions of Mindfulness Meditation.
8-Week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction / Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy Courses:
Rooted in Eastern spiritual traditions, in recent years mindfulness has been brought together with aspects of western psychology to form secular educational programmes. Taught over 8 weeks, Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) programmes promote self-awareness, personal development and general wellbeing. In an MBSR/MBCT participants meet together as a class with an instructor for 8 weekly 2 – 2 ½ hour classes, plus one all-day session between weeks 5 and 7. (N.B. Courses of less than 8 weeks duration and 2 hours per class are not recognised as MBSR or MBCT.)
The skill of mindfulness is taught through formal and informal mindfulness practices. As mindfulness training is primarily experiential in nature, the main ‘work’ of the course is done at home between classes, using CDs with guided meditations that support participants developing practice outside of class. This requires devoting approximately 45 minutes per day to home practice. It is through personal experiencing of mindfulness that we come to understand the possibilities it opens for us in our daily lives.
Over the eight weeks of the program, the practices help us to:
- become familiar with the workings of the mind, including the ways we avoid or get caught up in difficulties.
- notice the times when we are at risk of getting caught in old habits of mind that re-activate downward mood spirals or rachet up anxiety levels.
- explore ways of releasing ourselves from those old habits and enter a different way of being.
- get in touch with a different way of knowing ourselves and the world.
- notice small beauties and pleasures in the world around us instead of living in our heads.
- be kind to ourselves instead of wishing things were different all the time, or driving ourselves to meet impossible goals.
- accept ourselves as we are, rather than judging ourselves all the time.
- be able to exercise greater choice in life.
Extensive research into 8-week MBSR and/or MBCT courses has shown that developing mindfulness has a significant positive effect on:
- developing greater self awareness
- increasing ability to manage stress
- physical and psychological health,
- reducing anxiety and depression,
- reducing tension, anger and fatigue,
- enhancing relationships,
- increasing vitality
- aiding better sleep
- developing stronger immunity
Mindfulness Based Approaches have also been used to treat or to augment or support the treatment of: addiction, cancer, eating disorders, chronic pain, anxiety, suicide, borderline personality disorder, relationship enhancement in couples and many other areas. There are mindfulness-based interventions at all levels of education, for parents, for carers, mindfulness in business, mindful leadership… the list continues to grow exponentially.