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Sunday, June 26, 2022

Don’t just do something, sit there

Ruth Whiteside explores the benefits of mindfulness.

For those readers who have not heard anything about mindfulness, this may only be because you have surrounded yourself with people respectful enough, that they do not preach to you about their enthusiasms. Mindfulness has grown into such a craze, that we all probably know someone who is into it. Many of us have discussed mindfulness at some point, perhaps through the beloved student practice of ill-informed posturing about its “role in modern society”. Nevertheless, the preachers for mindfulness in these conversations probably do have some good points.

Mindfulness is about cultivating present moment awareness, with a sense of friendship and compassion for yourself and others. But am I not always present and aware? Well, in one sense, yes. We all live in the present and are responsive to things that happen. People talk to us, we get asked to do things, and we occasionally have to run to avoid getting hit by cars.

But in another sense, much of the time, we are not very present. We have a brain that lets us process past events so that we can learn from them, and imagine future events so that we can prepare for them. This involves moving our attention to and from memories of the past and projections of the future. So far, so good. It seems our brains are helping us. So why would we benefit from mindfulness making us more aware of the present?

Well, sometimes our brain takes us out of the present too much, in a way that becomes unhelpful. We obsessively repeat painful, awkward, or embarrassing memories in our own heads; instead of carefully imagining the future to anticipate problems, we constantly spike our levels of fear and anxiety about all the potential difficulties that could arise there. In times like these, we have a brain in overdrive, and mindfulness offers to calm these sorts of over-active minds.

So, one benefit of mindfulness is making us more present. Formal mindfulness involves short or long exercises which ask us to concentrate on our breathing, senses, or different parts of our body. This refocuses our mind and teaches it to be more in tune with what is unfolding in our present.

Another benefit of mindfulness is that it teaches us to be compassionate with ourselves and others. Here we are talking about Westernised mindfulness, which was conceived by John Kabat Zinn in the 1980s as a strategy for supporting those slipping through the gaps in the American healthcare system. Yet the practice of mindfulness comes from ancient religious and cultural traditions, since it is central to the practice of Buddhism.

Westernised mindfulness originated from forms of mindfulness that were an integral part of a holistic theory as to how we should live our lives. This is why mindfulness contains themes of self-compassion and compassion for others. This compassion is cultivated in different ways through mindfulness practice. One way is through specific mindfulness meditations that overtly focus on the cultivation of compassion. More generally, self-compassion is an element that is worked into all mindfulness, because it infuses how we aim to relate to ourselves in meditation.

Now, the case for mindfulness for Oxford students. Mindfulness correlates with a reduction in stress, as well as an increase in academic performance. In a study published this year, a group of pre-clinical medical students took part in a mindfulness course and experienced a reduction in stress that lasted six months compared to the control group. The group also experienced a short-term increase in scholarly success through high exam performance. The conductors of the study hypothesised that these improvements in academic performance could have lasted longer if the course had been followed up by more regular mindfulness classes.

It must be noted, however, that mindfulness is not for everyone. Some studies have highlighted the effects mindfulness can have in terms of depersonalisation and the possible incompatibility of mindfulness with some personalities and approaches. Still, there is ample research to show that mindfulness is beneficial for a large number of people, so if you have not considered giving it a go, maybe you ought to. To highlight only the benefits explored in this article, mindfulness is correlated with greater presence of mind, higher levels of compassion, reduction in stress and enhanced academic performance. There are many more benefits, and very plausibly you may be one of the people for whom mindfulness has profoundly positive effects.

There are many opportunities for engaging in mindfulness, but the best way to learn how to do it safely and well is to take classes or a course, so look out for subsidised classes being offered by colleges. If that doesn’t apply to you, there are also many helpful podcasts that offer short and useful introductions. The Oxford Mindfulness Centre has a ‘resources’ section on their website for young people, donothing.uk, which is a good place to start.

Happy Stress-busting! 

Image license can be found here.

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