What is Mindfulness? A Definition and Introduction by Rich Jenkinson

What is mindfulness?

 

“Mindfulness is the practice of calming and focusing the mind and body by reducing the impact that uncontrolled thoughts have on our psychological and emotional state.  This is accomplished by cultivating and maintaining an open, non judgmental awareness of the current moment.”  (Jenkinson) 

 

With practise this awareness will expand to effortlessly incorporate our entire moment by moment experience with a high level of attention placed on internal factors (thoughts and feelings) as well as on external factors (the world around us).

 

What are the benefits of mindfulness?

 

Mindfulness has been proven to be effective in reducing stress, anxiety, depression and even chronic pain.  Research has also demonstrated that it can be used to treat insomnia, chronic fatigue syndrome, addition and more.

 

I believe mindfulness also has a great deal to offer new parents as it helps people to stay calm, focused and alert, even when they are under significant pressure.  I foresee mindfulness being taught in nationwide parenting classes in the near future and I’ll shortly be doing my bit for the campaign by using this blog to teach the key principles and techniques to our audience of new and expecting parents.   I have also started a Google + community to help spread the word.  Click here to join.

 

 

Mindfulness could prove to be of great benefit to new parents

Mindfulness could prove to be of great benefit to new parents

 

 

 

 

 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

 

 

 

 

Is there any evidence to support the claims?

 

Scientists have studied mindfulness under controlled laboratory conditions and remarkably, they have used MRI scanning technology to prove that mindfulness practice affects how the brain works.  Even the brain’s structure has been demonstrated to be affected by regular mindfulness practice.

 

There have been hundreds of studies that have documented the positive affects of mindfulness in treating a wide range of medical conditions.  Furthermore, the Mental Health Foundation commissioned a survey of 250 GPs in 2009 and it was shown that the large majority believed mindfulness practice would be beneficial for their patients in general and a third of the GPs confirmed that they already refer patients to MBCT (mindfulness based cognitive therapy) on a regular basis.

 

Mindfulness MRI

MRI images of the brain of a novice meditator show signs of pain nearly disappear. (source: Robert Coghill/Wake Forest University School of Medicine)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why haven’t I heard of it before now?

 

Due to the increasingly large body of evidence supporting the claims, mindfulness is now gaining a significant amount of media exposure.  Furthermore, the Mental Health Foundation are currently involved in a campaign to promote mindfulness called Be Mindful.

 

Countless books are being written on the topic and seminars and workshops are springing up all over the UK.  Many yoga teachers already incorporate the practice into their classes and word of mouth is spreading like wild fire.

 

However, despite all this, a large proportion of the UK population is still unaware of the practice or of the potential benefits it could offer.

 

Tragically, some people who have heard the term have labelled mindfulness as a wishy washy, new age treatment simply by association.  They see it exclusively for people who drink green tea and who chant at every available opportunity!  These people have become cynical and desensitised and are likely to promptly ignore any positive publicity regardless of any scientific research that is presented to back up the remarkable claims.

 

Is it a fad or will it be around for a while?

 

Mindfulness is not a new concept.  It is an ancient practice that has been a key part of many Eastern religions for centuries.  However, as there is nothing inherently religious about it, it has recently gained significant interest from the Western medical community mainly owing to the work of Thich Nhat Thay and Jon Kabat-Zinn as well as many others.

 

Mindfulness already helps millions of people around the globe but it has the potential to help billions.  I truly believe the practice will one day be taught in schools but to get there it will need to stay grounded.  People are already trying to put it on a pedestal and to make it into something it’s not.  They have bought into it, repackaged it and they are now trying to sell it off as whatever they want it to be.

 

I think Jon Kabat-Zinn has the right approach by presenting the practice in its purest form; devoid of any spiritual or religious connotation.   I’d go one step further and suggest that we stop associating it with words and phrases such as ‘meditation’, ‘present moment awareness’ and ‘enlightenment.’ For people who understand them, these expressions are obviously extremely relevant to the practice of mindfulness and moreover, they are an integral part of it.  However, for many others these expressions have a stigma attached to them.  My major concern is that these terms are producing a barrier which is preventing a significant proportion of the population from being open enough to the concept of mindfulness.  Unless we can find a way to bridge the gap, mindfulness may spend many more decades confined to meditation centres, yoga classrooms and the private residences of the population’s more spiritual and open-minded individuals.

 

How can I learn to be mindful?

 

There is a wealth of information available on the internet.  There are also countless books on the subject as well as an increasing number of regional classes.  I’d recommend you start with Jon Kabat Zinn’s excellent seminar on mindfulness that he presented at a Google tech talk as it’s freely available to watch on Youtube.

 

You can also keep an eye on this blog as I’ll be shortly be adding my favourite tips and techniques for learning to incorporate mindfulness practice into your everyday life.  You can also join our newly formed Google + community here

 

If you suffer from a mental health problem of any kind you may also be able to get a referral by visiting your GP and discussing your options.

 

Comments (2)

Linda Schultz
April 30, 2013 - 4:35 am /

I am a patient in a clinic that has a psychologist who teaches mindfulness. I have PTSD and would like to know how effective this treatment would be in helping me to look on the bright side of life. Could you help me understand the benefits of mindfulness therapy?

April 30, 2013 - 12:02 pm /

Dear Linda

 

Cognitive processing therapy and prolonged exposure therapy have been shown to be very effective in treating PTSD and your clinic will be able to advise you on these approaches. I can certainly help share my experiences with mindfulness practice as I firmly belive it can help with PTSD.

 

Your goal shouldn’t be to find happiness and peace in the future by attempting to reach a state where you stop dwelling on the traumatic event you experienced. I’m afraid it will always be with you and to attempt to fight against it will only make it worse.

 

Rather than looking to the future, your ‘goal’ should be in every moment and should focus on getting in touch with your body, mind and emotions right now so that you can start experiencing life in real time (as apposed to living in the remembered past or the imagined future). This is where mindfulness comes in. The above sounds awfully simplistic and so I’ll illustrate it as best I can:

 

15 years ago I was involved in a car crash. We were incredibly fortunate in that nobody was seriously injured. However, my mind constantly replayed the incident over and over again to try and get me to refuse to step foot in a car again. This was actually a healthy, evolved survival response if you think about it. If we didn’t have these mechanisms then we’d never as children learn not to stick our hands in the fire!

 

My experience obviously isn’t at all comparable to the severity of trauma others have suffered. This is not a, ‘I know what you’re going through’ statement as I cannot begin to. However, I can tell you how mindfulness helped me:

 

Because nobody was hurt badly I was able to force myself back into the car and to get on with my life (avoiding cars completely would have cost me my career). However, even though I was fortunate in that respect, for years I was haunted by the memory of being in that car, flipping through the air on a deserted Spanish motorway. I also became an extremely nervous passenger.

 

I began practicing mindfulness and things got better immediately. Rather than trying to block the memories and thoughts from my head I paid attention to them and let them come and go as they pleased without any deliberate attempt to resist, control or dwell on them (the classic metaphor is to see them as leaves on a stream).

 

Noticing my thoughts on a moment by moment basis was the crucial first step and I quickly realised that thoughts came in the form of images and sounds as well as the classic ‘voice in the head.’ I also realised that by focussing on them I stopped resisting them. Try it yourself now… close your eyes and see if you can watch your thoughts as if from the perspective of an impartial observer. Be like a cat waiting by a mouse hole (only instead of mice, you’re focussing on thoughts and rather than pouncing on them you’re going to let them come and go).

 

After I had practised observing my thoughts I then paid attention to the effect that these thoughts had on my body. At first, focussing on the recurring thoughts about the traumatic event caused a torrent of anxiety and panic that I had become so used to living with (and pushing down). Again, the mindfulness approach was to instead focus on the feelings and to explore them in as much detail as possible.

 

The technique is to feel rather than to think- to ask your body, not your mind. If you do this yourself try to feel the emotions with as much depth and detail as you can (it seems very counter-intuitive I know). Feel where they are localised, if they are static or moving and exactly how they feel. Try not to judge or label them or you’ll invite the thinking mind back into the process.

 
Once you become familiar with the link between the thoughts and emotions you can start to notice them in real time. With mindfulness you don’t resist or try and stop thoughts and emotions, nor do you judge them. You observe them with as much focus and objectivity as possible. The effect is miraculous and very surprising to the mind. However, it requires a large amount of concentration and focus and many people use mindfulness meditation to help train their minds.

 

Even though the goal should not be to stop the overwhelming effect of thoughts and emotions, this indeed happens as a result. The mindfulness approach is closely related to the approach taken in cognitive processing therapy and the two work very well together.

 

Even with a minor traumatic experience like mine, focussing on the thoughts and emotions was very uncomfortable to begin with. The waves of unpleasant emotions felt like I’d opened up Pandora’s box and the natural instinct was to try and close the lid again! I can only imagine how hard this process might be for people who have suffered much worse traumatic experiences. However, the alternative is avoidance and this only makes things worse over a much longer period of time.

 
You clearly have something inside of you that resonates with the concept of mindfulness. It may feel like you know it could help even before you fully understand what it is. The fact that you are willing and able to come on a public discussion group and to be honest about your condition and ask for help is an extremely impressive and encouraging sign. With such strength, focus and openness I’m sure you’ll be able to live the life you want to lead and please let us help you in any way we can.

 

Mindfulness is more of a way of experiencing life than a ‘cure.’ Even once symptoms subside, the practice of living mindfully should continue as it’s the only true way to experience inner peace and joy and as these are only available in the current moment, you have to be mindful in every moment in order to experience them.

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