Mindfulness, mindful meditation, mindful eating seem to be the new age terms that have become rather popular lately. But mindfulness goes back to ancient times. Most religions and spiritual practices have their own repertoire of a variety of meditative practices. Mindful meditation and mindfulness, however, have no religious trappings and anyone from any walk of life can incorporate mindful meditation into their life for just a few minutes in a day to witness the benefits.
The practice of mindfulness and meditative practices have gained scientific attention since several studies have come out, especially from the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts. Studies show improvement in general psychological health, depression, anxiety, chronic pain, cancer recovery and fibromyalgia amongst others. The improvement in physical ailments through this mind-body method is now accepted as a very important complement to mainline management of diseases.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the conscious and purposeful awareness of the present moment. The past is over and the future is not yet here. Being aware of the present moment keeps us more engaged and involved with our lives.
Have you been with your kids while distracted and wanting to be somewhere else? Have you driven home completely absorbed in the argument you had with a co-worker feeling the anger and irritation welling up inside? Have you looked back and wondered where the day had disappeared, having no memory of it? Have you sat in front of your TV and gone through an enormous bag of chips with no real recollection of having eaten it. These are all examples of mindlessness that are typical and not helpful. They rob us of the present moment and spin us into a realm that does not even currently exist and then create ill-health (as a result of overeating or anxiety).
Mindfulness is not about escapism but about being fully present with the moment. It is also the ability to observe (without judgment) the present moment with its pain, suffering, joy, happiness or feelings of insecurity and recognise it for what it is. Being mindful of the situation as it is helps us firstly concede it and then, when required, make the necessary changes to it. So, for instance, if you are angry or disappointed with someone, recognising that emotion for what it is and then questioning yourself to reveal the source of the anger/disappointment will help you deal with it far better than just acting on impulse, mindlessly. In fact, embracing the feeling of anxiety or pain instead of trying to escape from it can tell us much about ourselves, increasing self-awareness.
This habit of being present without judgment and being open to acknowledging what is happening in real time transforms our relationship with ourselves, creating a higher level of self-awareness that most of us lack. Our body and mind have an innate wisdom and capacity to indicate to us what is truly wrong and what is going on within. The only trouble is, we don’t listen because we are too busy living life at a high speed and mostly through virtual reality, with photographs and social media, comparing, wishing and judging.
Being mindful is a habit. The thoughts in our head can actually cause or aggravate disease or precipitate emotion; so our thoughts matter. Being aware of what they are therefore is critical to our well-being. Dr Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction programme, has conducted several studies on the benefits of mindfulness and mindfulness-based practices for medical conditions such as anxiety, pain and even skin conditions like psoriasis. The improvement in such conditions, using mindful meditation, appears to be the result of the deepening awareness of our own thought processes related to the disease or pain we suffer. Thinking in a particular manner about our pain or disease can actually increase it or alter the course of the disease. Being aware of just how we react to or think about/view our pain or disease will help us modify those thoughts when required and thereby alter the pain or disease. Being conscious when we start to ruminate about a negative outcome or recognising that our pain in the back is aggravated when we are stressed (not necessarily physically) is helpful to alter the course of the physical condition.
Steps to being more mindful
- Pay attention to simple things — such as taking a shower. Be conscious of the water, the temperature, the sound and feel of the experience. Make it a habit.
- Breathe — Sounds so simple. Rarely are we conscious of our breathing. Make it a habit to become aware of your breath at frequent intervals through the day. It could be every time you move from one project to another, or one client to another, or when you walk down a corridor, or get yourself a glass of water; stop and breathe.
- Listen to your body — Sometimes we are aware that there is some vague pain or discomfort in our body. Pay attention to how the body moves or how we sit, stand, eat or engage.
- How do we position our hips, feet, back, arms? Is there tension in some part of the body? Is it aggravated by the way we move or sit? Do we favour one side more than the other? Is one side weaker? Is our core engaged? These are not always aspects of ourselves we pay attention to. Doing so will bring a deeper awareness of our own body. This in turn keeps us tuned into our body, working with it instead of against it.
- Be aware of your thoughts — recognise your thoughts as they play out in your head. Don’t judge or be upset by them. Just be aware of them.
- Use all your senses — try to use all your senses from time to time. When you go for a walk outside, for instance, be conscious of the sights, smells and sounds. When you are cooking, be conscious of the colour of the vegetables, the feel of them as the knife goes through them, the changing smells when you cook and so on. Even cutting vegetables can be a mindfully meditative process!
- Engage fully — This is especially important when you interact with people. Engaging with them fully allows not only for better understanding and relationship but also makes them feel you are present and involved. In our fast-paced world we tend to skim through interactions without much thought leaving everyone concerned feeling unimportant and the whole interaction quite superficial.
- Practice — Mindfulness-based meditative practices may last for as short as ten minutes. You can source many of them online on YouTube. You could try the ones by Kabat-Zinn. Practising this form of meditation for even ten minutes every day will allow the habit of mindfulness to seep into the rest of your day. The practice may be anything from Body Scans to an actual Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction — MBSR session. Create a regular practice that you commit to every day, preferably at the same time of the day. Over time, this becomes your way of ‘being’ not just ‘doing’.
Mindfulness has a wide range of benefits from disease management to a general improved sense of well-being and increased productivity. Do you wonder sometimes why you are not able to get things done? Why you can’t focus your attention when needed? Why you find it difficult to express yourself properly as your thoughts careen from one thing to another? Why you overeat when you know you shouldn’t or why you can’t sleep with those thoughts spinning around in your head in an endless loop of melodrama? Mindful meditation and a continued practice of mindfulness on a day-to-day basis may be the answer to calming the mind and creating a more peaceful, focused and meaningful life experience.
The author, an obstetrician and gynaecologist, is a fitness and lifestyle consultant, and has published two books: Get Size Wise; Gain to lose.