There was a time when meditation was reserved for nonconformists. Fast forward to the present day and meditation’s close contemporary cousin, mindfulness, hasn’t just become mainstream – it’s become widely embraced by the medical realm. “For something to go from being left-field to being accepted in modern medicine, there has to be science behind it,” says mindfulness teacher and specialist general practitioner, Dr Tonya Southall Cruikshank.
Senior clinical psychologist and fellow Queenstown-based mindfulness teacher, Dr Kirsty Freeman, who is trained in cognitive therapy, explains there has been a huge shift in the way therapists approach patients with recurrent depression and anxiety. “Previously psychologists wanted people to change their thoughts, to think more positively, but researchers exposed to mindfulness discovered it’s not about changing the way you think. It’s about how you relate to your thoughts,” she explains. Instead of being overwhelmed by what is racing around in our minds, mindfulness allows us to step back and observe our thoughts. “As the evidence has gained more momentum, mindfulness has become more popular with medical professionals; it can be used to reduce stress, anxiety and increase compassion,” she says.
Medical practitioners are turning to the practice to help patients with chronic pain. “Whether it’s chronic pain, anxiety or depression, it’s all suffering,” says Freeman. “Mindfulness can give you freedom from suffering by allowing us to relate to our experience differently.” Southall Cruikshank explains that pain falls into two categories: primary pain, which comes from an injury such as a broken bone or a diseased organ, and secondary pain which comes from the way we think about our pain. “There’s a big fear of pain,” says Southall Cruikshank. Chronic-pain patients often fall into a vicious cycle of thoughts such as: Am I ever going to get better? What will the pain be like tomorrow? Mindfulness allows us to break the cycle of incessant thoughts and focus on the thought process. “It lets you say ‘this is just a thought, bring those stress levels down’ and then those stress levels become more manageable,” says Southall Cruikshank. “People become defined by their pain and illness but mindfulness allows people to become human again; it gives them freedom back,” says Freeman.
A Life-long Journey
While Freeman and Southall Cruikshank are pleased we’re becoming more aware of mindfulness, they’re eager to remind us that mindfulness is a skill that has to be learned.“It’s not like taking a pill,” says Freeman.
“We both offer eight-week courses; they’re intense but it really is a lifelong skill.” Southall Cruikshank admits there’s a slight flippancy about mindfulness circulating at the moment, too. “People read books and decide, ‘Oh, it didn’t work; mindfulness isn’t for me’ but a book or an app whets your interest,” she says. The real benefits come from regular practice. “There’s a school of thought that believes mindfulness is about ‘blissing out’ but it’s not at all,” says Freeman. “It’s about being aware of unpleasant, pleasant and neutral thoughts. It’s about how we relate to these things rather than react to them,” she explains. Although the concept of ‘watching’ a thought rather than reacting to it might sound simple, the practice is more complicated. One of the first steps that Southall Cruikshank and Freeman teach in their courses is coming home to the body. “We look at developing breathing and body awareness; you shift your thoughts to your breathing and your stress levels immediately improve,” says Southall Cruikshank.
The most common complaint Southall Cruikshank hears from patients is ‘I’m a busy person; my mind won’t keep still.’ She says: “It’s not about sitting there and achieving some enlightened state, it’s about learning to take your awareness from your thoughts to your body. Whether that’s for pain, stress or anxiety, adrenaline will fall and your stress levels will decrease.” But even for mindfulness devotees, it’s a lifelong commitment. “Sometimes it’s second nature but other times it’s hard,” says Freeman. “We’re all human. We don’t suddenly become perfect. Mindfulness is a journey where you get benefits all the way.”
A beginner’s Guide
Choose one simple everyday activity that you can do mindfully. “Be with the experience as it’s happening,” says Freeman. “Have a shower; don’t think or worry about the day. Just be with the shower. Feel the warmth. Enjoy the sensation of having a shower.” Southall Cruikshank says setting reminders to practise is crucial. “Set a reminder on your phone. Stick a note on your computer. We’re trying to break a habit for a short time so you need a reminder.” Think about your breathing: pause, take a break and breathe. “It’s about the act of stopping, pausing for a second, and taking three breaths. Do that regularly.” Be easy on yourself – if you can’t manage a full mindful meal or walk, start with shorter mindful moments.