The ins & outs of mindfulness
The ins & outs of mindfulness
Many of us have heard of the term mindfulness but what does it really mean? How does mindfulness meditation differ from spiritual-based practices?
What is mindfulness meditation?
Mindfulness meditation is distinct from meditation that focuses on a mantra or images. Its focus is on the observation of the sensations in our body. Research has shown both types of meditation to be beneficial for good health, but it’s mindfulness meditation that has been adopted as a therapy in the West, specifically mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR).
MBCT was initially created to help counter relapse in patients who had suffered major depressive episodes, and a 2010 Swiss study reports that MBCT significantly helped to delay relapse in recurrently depressed patients who were in remission.
MBCT, developed by Zindel Segal, Mark Williams and John Teasdale, is based on MBSR, which was founded by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. A 2011 New Zealand study demonstrated MBSR’s efficacy for helping people with chronic health problems better manage their symptoms.
According to Taylor, mindfulness is so beneficial therapeutically because it helps people understand the workings of their own mind, heart and body, and their relationships with other people. “You’re looking at yourself like a scientist would; really paying attention in fine detail at what you are doing physically and emotionally. When you can see what is happening [in your own mind, heart and body], then you can pause, come into a more centred space and then choose what action, if any, you need to do.”
It is often supposed that the objective of meditation is to rid the mind of thoughts, but Dr Stephen McKenzie, researcher and co-author of Mindfulness for Life, says that is a common misconception.
“I’ve had students who think they are not meditating or practising mindfulness properly if they have thoughts, and that’s not right – of course they are going to have thoughts. The mindful response is to observe them rather than fight them, and once we’re observing them we realise we are deeper than our thoughts – we are that which is observing the thoughts – so they lose their power.”
Taylor refers to these thoughts – or emotions, beliefs and ideas – as familiar guests, and explains that the objective is to first get to know the thoughts that come, and then ask whether they serve you. “It really doesn’t matter if the familiar guests are rational or real, only whether they serve you or the people around you. Surprisingly, everyone can answer these questions.
“If there are thoughts, responses or habitual patterns that we have that don’t serve us, then it’s important not to be angry with them. These thoughts are habituated … For example, I might say ‘Oh what a feeling’, and people will respond with ‘Toyota’. There’s no useful purpose to have that response in your brain; it’s not a choice that you made. Treat your thoughts with kindness; it takes away the blame and the shame, and you stop defending yourself or feeling embarrassed about having them.”
“Being mindful is being aware and accepting of what is,” says Dr McKenzie, but while we may learn to accept “what is” in our own lives, we may find it more difficult to accept perceived abuses and injustices out in the world.
“There’s an old saying, ‘Learn from the past, plan for the future, but live in the present,’” says Dr McKenzie. The idea is to be conscious in everything we do, so if we do perceive an abuse or injustice, we are best able to know how to deal with it.“I spent some time with Jon Kabat-Zinn [founder of MBSR] a couple of years ago in the States, and he thinks mindfulness is synonymous with kindness, and I think that is true,” says Taylor. Taylor speaks about the kindness we can first show ourselves, when we accept our thoughts, emotions, beliefs and ideas without judgement. From here our kindness naturally extends to others, as we start to see that we are not our thoughts, but simply the observers of our thoughts.
The benefits of mindfulness
With mindfulness, therefore, we learn to respond to perceived wrongs in the world consciously and with kindness. As a result, acceptance of “what is” allows us to become more involved with life, from a place of empowerment, rather than less involved because we feel helpless. We learn to let go of the things that don’t matter, to concentrate and act more consciously on the things that do.
Mindfulness meditation is a subtle and ongoing process. Dr McKenzie explains that we don’t just wake up one day to find we are perfect, mindful and peaceful. “It’s more about realising when we lose that mindfulness, and perhaps realising it more often than we previously did.”
The practice of mindfulness meditation has been shown to help slow the ageing process in a couple of unique ways.
Elizabeth Blackburn, an Australian-born molecular biologist, won the Noble prize for medicine after she discovered an enzyme called telomerase, which works to keep part of our DNA, the telomeres, healthy. In a 2011 study, researchers, which included Blackburn, found that practising mindfulness or other forms of meditation long-term may indeed decelerate cellular ageing, as it helps to mitigate against stress.
It was long thought that the brain reached maturity, then slowly declined with age, but neuroscience has shown that the brain has plasticity and can change throughout a lifetime. Research indicates that mindfulness meditation changes the structure of the brain, in regions associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress, which has positive implications for dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.
A 2012 study found that repeatedly engaging certain areas of the brain while in meditation (though not specifically mindfulness meditation) does, over time, induce changes that result in positive cognitive, emotional and behavioural outcomes. These results directly support the anecdotal evidence.