Mindfulness: more than just meditation

Between the 11th and 17th May this year was Mental Health Awareness Week, an annual event run by the UK’s Mental Health Foundation to raise a discussion on mental health and well-being. This year’s theme was on mindfulness, one of the buzzwords of 2015. But what exactly is it? Mindfulness is often seen in the media within the context of meditation or Buddhism or depression, and it seems to be going mainstream. But I mentioned mindfulness to a friend once, and they thought it meant finding a quiet, serene spot, sitting down in the Lotus position, hands in an a-ok gesture, and humming ‘omm’.

Yes, mindfulness has originated mainly from Buddhist or monastic traditions, but there are no religious associations with it (a debate or discussion in itself). It is completely secularised, and that perhaps is the reason why it has become so popular all of a sudden. Not only has a whole new type of psychotherapy been based on it – Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) – but organisations are slowly rolling it out to schools, universities, and even prisons. One definition of mindfulness is that it is the practice of paying attention to the here and now. It is a form of awareness, of focusing on your breathing, bodily sensations, thoughts, and feelings, and concentrating on what is happening moment by moment, rather than allowing your mind to wander to the regrets of the past (that moment in Park End) and the fears of the future (impending exams). There’s a lot more to it than sitting down and meditating. You can practise mindfulness wherever you are; you don’t need to be in the middle of Port Meadow surrounded by cow poop.

Surprisingly, there is actually a growing body of evidence that suggest that mindfulness works. And given the fact that it’s as cheap an intervention as they come, the NHS of course recommends it (in the form of MBCT), but only for the prevention of episodes of recurrent major depression. There are simply not enough studies yet to determine if it works on eating disorders, anxiety disorders, personality disorders, and all the other mental health conditions that many websites claim mindfulness can cure.

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I’ve practised mindfulness for several months now. I first learnt through an app called Headspace, which gave ten 10-minute sessions free, following which you can buy a yearly subscription. The app developers call it a “gym membership for the mind” – kind of like what Oxford is, if you think about it. I found it helped to keep me focused through the day, and stopped me from excessive worrying. While I’ve been using it in the context of clinical depression, lots of people have also used it to get to a better state of wellbeing from their relatively normal baseline. Let’s face it, Britain is hardly the happiest country in the world. Mindfulness isn’t just for depressed people, it’s also for anyone who wants to be happier, even if they’re unhappy per se.

One of the key tenets of mindfulness is shifting your attention to the bodily senses. This might mean feeling the weight of your body through your feet, bum, or back against your chair, bed, sticky Bridge floor, or wherever you happen to be reading this. Try this now. Just notice how your feet are resting on the floor, without needing or wanting to change it. Next, you’ll want to scan the rest of your body. Where are the areas of tightness? Where are the areas of lightness?

I’d then suggest you to close your eyes so you can focus on your other senses, and especially to the senses within your body, but that would stop you from reading this, so please don’t do that (just yet). Listen to the sounds around you. You might hear your own breath, people talking, the wind, the sounds of freshers nervously laughing about exams, finalists swearing under their breath. Pick up on these sounds without lingering on them. Noticing and being aware that they exist is good enough.

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Focusing on the breathing is also important. It might help you to mentally count each breath as you inhale and exhale up from one to ten, and then going back to one. Feel the breath entering through your nostrils, making its way down to your lungs, and sense your abdomen and chest stretching as your lungs expand. And then the reverse as you exhale.

Another idea central to mindfulness is being aware of what is going on in your mind. You can think of other analogies for this, but the one that I like to use is imagining my thoughts as written on clouds that are speedily floating by on a sky, and my feelings as the colour of the background sky. The background sky could be dark or bright, and the clouds could either be few and far between (i.e. during an exam) or they could be cluttering the sky. The clouds can also be rushing by quickly, whereas others are always there, lingering, threatening to rain. The idea in mindfulness isn’t to clear your head from emotions and feelings; it is to be aware of them. It is absolutely okay for your mind to be working. It’s not about stopping thoughts; it’s about accepting, acknowledging, and recognising them. Then, you’re less likely to let the thoughts and emotions overwhelm you. It’s also about self-compassion, and saying to yourself that you’re enough, and worthy of existing. So – happy mindfulness!