This article is written by Australia Counselling member Colleen Hurll.
Mindfulness Meditation has developed over 2,500 years and has its roots in the Eastern philosophy of Buddhism and, more specifically, in the meditation ‘Vipasana’ which is a northern Indian word which, in the Western world, means ‘Insight Meditation’ and has become known as ‘mindfulness’ or ‘mindfulness meditation.’
In the 1970s Jon Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist with a Buddhist meditation background, developed the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Programme (MBSR), consisting of eight weekly classes, for medical patients with a wide range of medical problem. Between classes participants were asked to practice mindfulness on a daily basis and, at completion, the majority of participants were found to have benefited in a variety of ways.
Research has continued at The Center for Mindfulness in the USA and the center is dedicated to the ongoing investigation, via clinical trials and analytical research, of the attributes and qualities of mindfulness and its role in health and healthcare. Over the years, other approaches have grown out of the firm foundations of MBSR and, nowadays is sometimes combined with therapy, such as Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Dialectical Behaviour Therapy.
In the Western world ‘mindfulness meditation’ and the term ‘mindfulness’ are used synonymously in many articles and books on the subject and I have taken the liberty, in this article, to do likewise.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness means being, intentionally and non-judgementally, present and aware in the moment.
Essentially, it is about developing a new approach to life; a way of engaging with yourself and your external environment in an alert and aware manner, allowing the present moment just to be the way it is and letting things be as they are without any analysis.
Knowing what you are doing whilst you are doing it is the essence of mindfulness. Hence, mindfulness draws our attention to, and challenges our tendency to relate to our experiences in automatic and habitual ways.
Mindfulness invites you to slow down and be in the present moment and, with practice, to adopt this way of ‘living in the moment’ instead of ruminating about the past or thinking or worrying about the future. You can learn to not react to negative thoughts with judgment, fear, anxiety or stress.
Instead, regular mindfulness practice teaches you to break free of such habitual negative thoughts that cause these unnecessary reactions and to decrease emotional reactivity.
During mindfulness meditation you allow thoughts to enter your mind in a passive manner without analyzing or judging them. This creates awareness of what is happening in the present and you learn to accept thoughts that come your way with calmness and equanimity which helps you relate to yourself and others in a healthier, more positive way and to be aware of all aspects of your moment by moment experiences.
Actually, when we were quite little, we all had this capacity to completely focus on the present moment. Just observe a baby or infant who is fully absorbed in what they are doing, such as eating, bathing or examining a new object, exploring their world with curiosity and a sense of wonder with the new experiences they discover. Unfortunately, in our society, we lose this way of being all too soon and therefore need to re-learn these innate skills and sense of wonderment and joy:
Mindfulness can help us to feel a greater connection with ourselves and with experiences in our bodies and minds. We can also feel more connected to those around us and the world that we live in. (Silverton)
What brain science says about mindfulness
Through neuroscience, we now know that the brain is capable of change, both in structure and activity, depending on how we use our brain. This is known as neuroplasticity. Hence, your brain can develop new pathways through repetitiveness or practice of something like mindfulness and the more you do it, the stronger these pathways become.
Furthermore, different pathways in the brain are involved in the processing of various things, such as pain, creativity, mood, emotional regulation. So, in adopting and maintaining the regular practice of mindfulness you are increasing our resilience to better manage life when difficult situations arise. Not forgetting of course, that mindfulness also promotes more awareness and therefore, happiness, in the good times and to be able to savour and hold onto life’s positive experiences for a longer time.
In a world where physical and mental health disorders and illnesses are on the rise, people are increasingly turning to analgesics, anti-anxiety medications and anti-depressants to ease problems such as depression, anxiety, chronic stress or chronic pain and medical conditions.
Research shows that mindfulness meditation is a natural approach for dealing with these conditions and the many and varied physical and psychological health issues they create.
For example, a study published in General Hospital Psychiatry showed that eight weeks of mindfulness meditation training reduced both subjective and objective signs of anxiety in people diagnosed with anxiety and panic disorder. Other studies have provided evidence that mindfulness practice reduces the production of the stress hormone cortisol, thereby reducing the levels of stress. Some studies have also provided evidence that regular mindfulness practice reduces pain.
Being mindful and bringing mindfulness into our lives is also about bringing kindness and care into it…When we show kindness and consideration to ourselves we are more inclined to feel less depressed, stressed and anxious (Rezek )
Evidence supports other positive effects of regular, on-going practice of mindfulness meditation include:
- Improves overall wellbeing
- Facilitates you to become more attuned to yourself and increases self-awareness
- Helps to reduce the symptoms and effects of trauma
- Decreases anxiety, panic, depression and irritability
- Reduces the severity and effects of psoriasis
- Helps in weight management
- Enhances the immune function
- Helps with cardiovascular disease, hypertension and diabetes
- Improves self esteem and self-confidence
- Improves your sleep
- Reduces fatigue in conditions such as cancer, chronic fatigue syndrome
- Helps reduce the effects of fibromyalgia and arthritis
- Promotes rational, positive thinking
- Increases grey matter in the brain, which facilitates recognition of internal sensations, thoughts and feelings
- Contributes to an improvement in reasoning, decision-making, concentration, memory, mental and physical stamina, controlling your emotions and behaviour
How to practise mindfulness
Mindfulness can be practiced in short bursts or even one minute mindfulness (such as when showering, gardening, walking, utilizing public transport, standing, swimming, listening or waiting in a queue) or as a more formal, longer meditation practice by examining various objects (a raisin, orange, apple, flower) or parts of one’s body (hands, feet).
In mindfulness meditation you begin with a singular focus like your breathing, which incorporates deep abdominal breathing.
Being aware of your breathing remains the most important aspect of mindfulness practice and therefore it is able to be practiced easily in short bursts, as described above.
So, you initially focus on your breath and then broaden your observations by noting any sensations, sounds, thoughts or feelings as they arise. Any thoughts or feelings noted are not ignored or suppressed, they are just observed without analyzing or judging them. Rather, you just gently return to observing your breath or whatever is your meditation focus at that time.
In mindfulness meditation it is best to start off with a 5 minute meditation, focusing only on your breathing and then progress to longer meditations in which you focus on an object.
You can learn mindfulness meditation by attending classes hosted by an experienced instructor or you could learn on your own with the help of visual and/or audio instructions.
- To begin, find a comfortable chair to sit on or sit or lie down on the floor ensuring that you are in a comfortable position and that your clothing is not tight or uncomfortable in any way.
- Either close your eyes or fix your gaze on an area a few feet in front of you and start to focus on your breathing.
- Breathe deeply and note how your breath flows in and out and in your mind’s eye watch your abdomen rise and fall and your lungs expand and deflate.
- Become fully aware of all aspects of your breathing as you continue to breathe in and out.
- As you become more advanced you may choose an object to use to focus on, to study and become aware of all aspects of that object during your mindfulness meditation practice whilst still being mindful of your breathing.
- Initially, you will probably notice that thoughts enter your mind as you focus on your breath or an object and that is quite usual and so quietly observe them without making judgments or trying to stop them, just gently take your focus back to your breath or object.
With regular practice, you will learn to exist in the present moment, moment by moment, attain inner peace whilst accepting your thoughts or feelings without reaction or judgment.
Try and do a 5 minute practice twice a day and, over time, increasing this to 20 minutes twice a day in order to reap the many benefits that mindfulness meditation has to offer.
Colleen Hurll is a relationship counsellor and stress management specialist, who offers counselling and psychotherapy services in Castle Hills, in the Hills District of Sydney. View her Australia Counselling profile or website.
Check out this video below of Jon Kabat-Zinn explaining mindfulness:
- Altman, D One Minute Mindfulness. California: New World Library, 2011
- Goldsmith, J Art of Meditation. Great Britian: George Allen & Unwin, 1980
- Rezek, C Brilliant Mindfulness. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2012
- Silverton, S The Mindfulness Breakthrough. London: Watkins Publishing, 2012
- General Hospital Psychiatry. Volume 17, Issue 3, May 1995, Pages 192 – 200.
photo credit: Stuck in Customs