How to harness the power of mindfulness
Mindfulness can trace its origins back more than 2,000 years as a meditative part of Buddhism, but it has been hitting the headlines again recently as people recognise the benefits it can have as a way of handling everyday emotions.
Indeed, it is being used in the field of psychology to alleviate anxiety, depression and addiction, as well as a wealth of other mental and even physical conditions.
What is mindfulness?
So, what is it and why is it capturing the public imagination to become such a useful part of our everyday lives?
First things first: mindfulness has been defined as a technique for bringing one's total attention to the present experience using a moment-by-moment timescale. It is characterised mainly by acceptance – drawing attention to thoughts and feelings but not judging whether or not they are right or wrong, good or bad.
It trains the brain to focus on what the senses are processing at any given moment, rather than anticipating what might be coming in the future or have occurred in the past.
This could be more crucial now than ever before. An estimated quarter of a million people miss work because of stress every day in this country, while up to 75 per cent of all illnesses could be stress-related, according to the Mental Health Foundation.
What are the benefits?
By using techniques that can be practised alone on an everyday basis, we could learn to be more aware of our thoughts and feelings so that we're able to manage them as opposed to being overwhelmed by them. We could also improve our concentration, strengthen relationships and become more appreciative of the here and now.
Recent research published by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, the University of Oslo and the University of Sydney found that people who practised a particular type of nondirective meditation (where they focused on their own breathing and let their mind wander) tended to display higher levels of activity in the part of the brain associated with processing self-related thoughts and feelings.
Meanwhile, mother-of-six and busy actress Angelina Jolie has said she stays calm by finding meditation moments during playtime with her children.
However, mindfulness meditation is slightly different to these methods in that it doesn't seek to teach us to be different – instead, its goal is self-awareness and an unconditional residence in the present, no matter what is happening.
This leads us to appreciate the wisdom and abilities we already have inside us so that we can cope with the inevitable pain we will experience at some point in our lives, rather than wishing things were different or expecting happiness not to last.
Psychologists use the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programme developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979, but this needs to be implemented by professionals and is most commonly used in times of mental health issues. However, you can try mindfulness techniques on your own any time you like – preferably every day.
How to practise mindfulness
To start with, sit down and assume a posture that is upright but not too rigid, with your legs crossed in front of you and your palms resting on your thighs. Your eyes should be open but relaxed and your gaze should rest in front of you, focusing on a point about a metre away.
Simply sit and consider your body and your surroundings. If your attention wanders, don't worry; just gently bring it back to the environment. Thoughts and feelings will inevitably distract you, but don't get cross or try to stop thinking altogether.
Instead, accept them, note the drift in attention, but don't get caught up in them. You will allow thoughts to come and go, creating a sense of calm acceptance.
For instance, if you notice that the grass outside your patio doors needs cutting, let the thought occur to you, but move on rather than starting to think about when you might get the lawnmower out and what the neighbours might be thinking.
You should also work your breathing so that you feel air as it comes into your body and is expelled. Some people like to try 7/11 breathing, which is where you count to seven as you breathe in and then 11 as you breathe out, but this isn't essential if you find it too distracting.
Try this for ten to 15 minutes at first and then start to build up to 20 minutes, 30 or even longer if you wish, once you have got the hang of it.
Mindfulness can be done almost anywhere
Although we have provided instructions on mindfulness while sitting down, you can actually do it almost anywhere, even if you're ostensibly doing something else. For example, what about trying it while washing the dishes?
Rather than thinking about all your daily tasks, note the temperature of the water and the way it feels, the texture of the suds and the sounds of the pots dipping in and out of the water, making the soap bubbles stir.
Alternatively, try it while walking to the train station instead of being glued to Twitter or your emails – focus on the birdsong or people's voices.
Although this may take a little getting used to because it is so different to how we usually let our thoughts run away with us, it will eventually become easier.
Once you have got used to mindfulness and incorporated it into your everyday life, you will hopefully be able to implement it when unforeseen circumstances crop up or as a way of overcoming distress – being aware that situations might hurt you, but looking for a way to find peace nevertheless.