WHAT IS MINDFULNESS - and why does it matter?
At its essence, mindfulness is being in the moment, being engaged with what we're doing in each moment, rather than being in that distracted mode where we're daydreaming about the past or the future, or caught up in reactivity. If you think about it, there are probably moments throughout the day that you're already mindful and present. If you think about your hobbies, things that you enjoy doing, there's a pretty good chance that when you're doing them, you're engaged in the senses, fully immersed in that activity.
When you're doing these things you're happy and relaxed (that's why we set these things out to be our hobbies) because there's something about being present and engaged that's actually very enjoyable.
It also increases our performance as we learn to really focus and be present, to listen more effectively, to study more effectively, work more effectively. This is the reason it iis being used in health care generally, and more in education.
Mindfulness is an everyday experience of being engaged and present with whatever we're doing from moment to moment, that's relatively easy to experience when we're doing things we enjoy.
But for most of us, it's little harder when we're under the pump at work, stressed, when we're facing exams or when we're sitting in peak hour traffic. For most people these would be times that we would tend to wander off into the default mode of worrying, dwelling, caught up in judgments and reactions, or just daydreaming and not paying attention. So in moments like this, mindfulness becomes a practise.
It is something that we can practise, and of course... anything we practise we get better at.
The practise of mindfulness is very simply to intentionally engage with whatever we're doing in the present moment, to notice when our mind invariably wanders off somewhere else and then just to bring it Just practise recognising that we wandered and coming back over and over and over again.
One of the most important applications of mindfulness is in managing stress. It's worthwhile going into these stress responses in a little bit of detail so we understand how mindfulness might help, and also to get a bit of a sense of how the mind-body relationship works.
If we're in a situation where a lion comes out of the bushes and it's got us lined up, then we're going to activate the fight or flight response.
There are a lot of changes that happens in the body when we do that ;
- Our circulation becomes hyperdynamic.
- The blood gets thick and sticky and ready to clot fast.
- The metabolic rate goes up to help us to burn fuel faster than normal as a rapid release of sugars and fats into the bloodstream.
- We start to sweat because our metabolic rate's gone up and we're starting to feel hot.
- The blood is diverted away from the skin and from the gut, so the gut shuts down and all of that blood is being sent off to the muscles because they're going to be doing a lot of work while we're trying to get away from the lion.
From a mindfulness point of view we're now very much in the present moment. We're not thinking about the weather or if we're going to top up our superannuation before the end of the financial year. No, we're very much focused on what's happening in the moment because we need to see where the threat is and where the escape route is. We are activating the response because we need it, it's a present moment threat. It's not an anxiety response, it's an activation response. We are being mindful.
We will be faster and stronger and have more endurance than we normally, This response is designed to be switched on only every so often and then to be switched off as soon as it's no longer required. If we do that from time to time it's going to be the difference between life and death.
Unfortunately in modern life we tend to get anxious and preoccupied about what might or might not happen in the future, or we keep reliving past event. It doesn't matter that these events are in our imaginations. If we're not mindful, we take the imaginary threat to be real.
We are anticipating "Will I or won't I...... " What if..".. It could be 3 o'clock in the morning and there's no actual threat in the present moment but we're activating this response because of what we can catastrophising about.
This does not re-charge our battery, instead we experience anxiety because all these chemicals are pumping out with nowhere to go and nothing to do. This inappropriate activation of that response is not going to save our life - it's the kind of things that makes us sick. It might linger around during the day, grinding and create a negative energy in our body. If we do this on a regular basis it will produce a wear and tear on our system that is not designed to take on this activity.
This brings on impaired immunity so we are more likely to get infection. We accelerate the hardening of the arteries so it leads to heart attacks and strokes, metabolic effects, high blood pressure/blood glucose/blood lipids and so on. It also affects the ageing of the bones and ageing of the brain as the stress chemicals are neurotoxic so they damaged brain cells over the long term, and actually, they do a thinning of the grey matter. So we don't just feel bad in the short term, it affects our health in the long term.
Areas that are most affected from this stress are the memory centre. In the long term it affects our ability to function well, even at the start it is in a rather subtle form.
The only part of the brain that's going to grow if we're activating it all the time is the stress centre. It gets bigger and it gets more reactive. We kind of wire our brain for more stress. That's the bad news.
But the good news from a mindfulness front is that if we learn to recognise and switch off the inappropriate activation of that response, everything heads back to healthy levels. If we do that consistently, day in, day out over weeks, months, and years, we get more and more added benefits as the body will start to balance and repair itself.
It has a whole lot of good long-term effects in our health as far as the brain and the immunity in the cardiovascular system, it even affects right down to our DNA. Lots of stress has a rapid ageing of our DNA whilst mindfulness seems to slow it down.
Now these are implicit when we're practicing mindfulness meditation or being informally mindful in our day to day life. But when we're thinking about managing stress, depression or understanding our own minds better, then we make them explicit.
The first one relates to perception. That when we're unmindful. We often lose the ability to discern between imagination and reality. We're catastrophising about something in the future that's not happening. We could be sitting in a very comfortable chair at the time at home and we're getting anxious about a thought we just created, something that is not with us at this very moment but in the future, or even in the past. The whole fight or flight response is activated because we're taking our imagination to be real. When we learn to be mindful we tap ourselves on the hand internally and say it's all right, it's just a mental projection, imagination or it might replaying a past event.
This capacity to discern between imagination and reality it's a very important one. If we don't do that well, we're very vulnerable to a lot of stress.
The next one relates to letting go. There's a thought, but we talk about holding an opinion. We get attached to the thought. Now of course, if we get attached to a thought, like an opinion, and somebody challenges that opinion, we feel personally affronted, we feel stressed, angry hurt, annoyed or we might feel withdrawn because the attachment, the threat to the thought is taken as a personal threat.
We talk about being into groups of fear. There's an emotion and we're very attached to it so we start to be governed by the fear, dominated by it. So whether it's thoughts, emotions or even physical sensations including pain, we can learn to stand back from them and observe them with less attachment.
It's not a denial that they're there, but we can learn to just observe them with less attachment.
We can learn in a sense, to let go.
Let's play with the thought that we are having a conversation and an opinion is expressed which we feel challanged about.
Now just view the opinion without particular attachment to it. This makes it much more possible for us to just look at the merits of that opinion. Let it go if it's not useful, or maybe use the situation to actually get more clarity if it is a useful thought, to actually say well, no. I really understand what I think now and I'm actually more convinced than I was before. It could be a desire. We get an attachment to a desire. Can we let that attachment to that desire go and does that give us more freedom to not be dominated by that desire? So non-attachment.
The third one relates to acceptance. We might be experiencing something that's very pleasant which we in general find very easy to accept. But very often we're experiencing things that we don't like and we might notice the effect of non-acceptance, or reactivity to it, or heighten the fact that it's there actually leads to an increasing sort of level of intrusiveness of that experience, thought or feeling.
For example, we might be experiencing a depressive thought or emotion which we try to get rid of. It starts to take over. If we can actually soften the attitude to it, a little bit of self compassion goes a long way here to notice that thought or that feeling but just to be accepting of the fact that at that moment, that thought or the feeling is there. Then it doesn't tend to dominate quite so much. It makes it a lot easier to experience a lot less suffering in the presence of that thought or feeling, but it also makes it a whole lot easier to unhook from it. Acceptance is a very important part of what it means to be mindful.
There are whole approaches to psychotherapy that are based on acceptance, like Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT).
Being in the present moment
The fourth of the big four is presence of mind.
Our mind is often living a future that hasn't happened or reliving a past that's already come and gone. Therefore we often totally miss the present moment, here and now.
Missing the present moment means we don't really enjoy what we're doing. We have chosen to be somewhere else (in the past or the future). We're not just enjoying the simple pleasure of tasting the food properly, or just enjoying the sound of the birds as we walk through the park. We don't enjoy things in the same way, but also, we don't function as well if we're not present to what we're doing.
We don't even communicate as well, remember as well or learn as well. So not being present not only leaves us vulnerable to stress but it also affects our ability to function.
To get better and better at noticing when we're in a future that hasn't happened or a past that's already come and gone we can actually make a conscious choice to come back to here and now.
Maybe there's a tight deadline coming up, or something you need to talk to your wife or parent about which makes us anxious.
"Will I .. Want I...." - maybe you can shift that thought and place and actually stay in the present moment.
Come back to the step that's in front of you now, andd you might notice that you start to get back on track. You might also notice that you start to feel a lot less pressure.
I will continue to discuss and share about mindfulness every now and then, so if interested you will have the opportnity to explore further as well.
Mindfulness meditation practise will really help to reinforce our ability to notice, learn and explore in more depth what these big four cognitive aspects of mindfulness really mean.