You may have heard me mention the word mindfulness A few (dozen) times across my various social media platforms over the past few months. Given that I will probably continue banging on about it for quite some time and hope to also record and share some more mindfulness meditations, I figured it would probably be a good idea to give a brief introduction to what mindfulness is and a little insight into my forever developing relationship with living in the moment.
I started practising and teaching mindfulness in 2005, and it has become a large part of my life, professionally and personally. Over these years it has also gradually become a more central aspect of society, being taught across the National Health Service, in schools, businesses and community organisations. It has also been gaining a lot more attention in the media. Even if you have not came across any of my work it is likely that the word mindfulness has at some point or another been used in your presence. It may be something you know a lot about, or a way of approaching life and taking care of yourself that still feels quite elusive. Either way I think it is always good for all of us to go back to basics, as if you are coming across these ideas of engaging with the world and yourself for the first time.
Mindfulness is part of what is often referred to as, the 3rd wave of Psychological Therapies, also including Acceptance Commitment Therapy and Compassionate Focused Therapy. Following the advent of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy in the 1960s there has been a great deal of focus on helping people improve their emotional well-being by encouraging a change in their thoughts and behaviours. This approach has been found to help a great deal of people and has been used throughout the world. Research started to show however that another very important way of looking at the world was to take a more acceptance based approach to life, whereby we are taught how to live more in the moment (Roemer & Orsillo, 2011). Becoming more in tune with whatever we are experiencing – good bad or indifferent – in a non-judgemental way, can help us develop a deeper and clearer interaction with the world and with ourselves. Think about it: how much of our life do we spend bumbling about thinking about the future or the past, not really in tune with our bodies or our minds, on automatic pilot often repeating the same patterns we have had for years?
Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of mindfulness, described mindfulness as:
‘paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally’
Mindfulness has been found to improve the well-being of people experiencing a range of psychological disorders, including anxiety and depression. Integrating concepts of mindfulness into our consciousness and emotional development provides us with an opportunity to be more proactive in the care of our mental health, not just turning towards it when something goes wrong but integrating it into our lifestyle in general. It is important that we exercise our emotional well-being as well our physical. In the same way that we are being increasingly taught that looking after our physical bodies is not just about dieting or sporadic exercise, but taking a more holistic lifestyle approach, it is time we give our minds equal importance in our overall self-care. Many people practice mindfulness not just as a reactive approach to feeling stressed or psychologically unwell, but as a way of living their life.
Mindfulness has been found particularly beneficial for those experiencing a wide array of chronic illnesses, psychological or physical. Studies have shown regular practice to improve psychological well-being, and reduce pain and suffering (Burch & Penman, 2013). There have also been many very interesting studies showing how regular mindfulness practice actually changes the biochemistry of our brain and nervous system. Vidyamala Burch (2013) a chronic pain sufferer, adapted mindfulness techniques to specifically meet the needs of those getting up every day, trying to cope with a body that no longer functions as we would like. Her breathworks courses are being run in venues across the globe and have been reported by many chronic illness sufferers to be extremely beneficial. www.breathworks-mindfulness.org.uk
It has been my journey of living with widespread chronic pain and the disabilities and emotional difficulties that come with this experience, that have strengthened my relationship with mindfulness. I continue to resolve to improve my physical health as much as I can, and do things that will ultimately improve my quality of life and that of my loved ones. However, as the years have went by I have also recognised the vital need to find a deeper connection with my life as it is. Rather than causing myself more pain and distress by constantly focusing on how to improve my health, wishing my life to be different, worrying about the future or ruminating about the past, I try my best to live in the moment as much as possible, regardless of how well or unwell my body feels. It is a frequent misconception that acceptance means somehow giving up, rather than what it really is – acceptance of the moment just the way it is.
In light of all of this I really wanted to give you an overview of the ideas behind mindfulness and what its practice actually entails; providing you with the opportunity to open yourself up to some of these ways of being with the world and yourself. It most definitely does not solve all your problems nor will it turn you into some kind of Zen Buddhist monk. It does however provide you with an extra tool in your psychological toolbox of life. My hope is that by continuing to share my experiences and knowledge it might in time help you as it has me and many of my clients over the years.
Tune back in tomorrow to read about the core themes involved in mindfulness practice/thinking.
From the bottom of my heart