In recent years, mindfulness has gone from being a little-known (in the West) form of Buddhist meditation to a hugely popular, much-written-about practice. It's hard to pick up a Sunday supplement these days without reading something about mindfulness, whether it's being taught to schoolchildren to deal with exam stress, or embraced by corporations such as Google, Facebook and eBay – it has become one of the buzzwords of our age.
This, of course, is a great thing – I strongly believe that everyone should meditate, and if we all lived our lives along Buddhist principles many of the world's problems and most of our cruelty and inhumanity to each other would be transformed overnight. But I am concerned about the misunderstandings of mindfulness, so wanted to set the record straight.
Mindfulness – especially in a psychotherapy context – is a skill. I teach my clients mindfulness techniques like I teach them any other skill, like how to identify and challenge negative thoughts; how to use relaxation techniques to de-stress and reduce anxiety; or how to 'push against' their avoidance in order to face and overcome their fears.
To understand this, it's helpful to think about the difference between formal and informal mindfulness practices. Formal practices involve sitting (usually, although they can include movement) in a quiet room, closing your eyes and concentrating for 20 or 30 minutes on your breath, body, thoughts or some other point of focus. Informal practices simply involve waking up to the sensory experience of your moment-to-moment experience, whether that's looking intently at a leaf, cloud or sunset; concentrating on the many and varied sounds coming to your ears; eating your apple or sandwich and relishing every taste, smell, texture and colour of the food.
Although I encourage my clients to develop a formal practice – and have a daily practice myself – it's the informal practices that can be so powerful if you are suffering from a psychological problem like depression, anxiety, chronic stress or an eating disorder. That's because they allow you to choose where to place your attention – on the negative thoughts swirling through your mind, the painful emotions and physical sensations in your body, or... something else. Anything else.
Here's an example:
You are sitting in a cafe, having a pleasant day, when you receive a text message from your ex-boyfriend saying they want to see you. You have only just got over the breakup and this text, out of the blue, triggers a cascade of 'what if' thoughts...
'Why does he want to see me? What if he's changed his mind? Does he still love me? Maybe he's met someone else and wants me to hear it from him. God, that would just kill me...'
Unsurprisingly, these thoughts trigger a wave of powerful emotions: anxiety, upset, hope, fear, sadness, jealousy...
Within a few seconds, you have been catapulted from feeling happy and calm to being tossed around on waves of emotion. Then you remember your mindfulness training, close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. You sit upright and let your tense shoulders drop and relax. You focus on the warm, milky, chocolatey cappuccino in front of you, inhaling deeply of its aroma and then take a sip, tasting the coffee and noticing the sensation as it travels down your throat. Your mind keeps trying to pull you away with a string of 'what ifs' but each time you simply notice the thoughts, then gently but firmly bring your attention back to the coffee.
Your emotions naturally subside and you feel calmer. You put your phone away, deciding to respond to the text tomorrow, rather than rushing a reply you might regret. And you smile, at how just being mindful helped you out of a dark place.
Of course, it's best to develop both a formal and informal practice, but understanding why you are doing so can help you overcome the inevitable trials and tribulations involved. Developing this skill is, I believe, one of the simplest but most powerful steps you can take in overcoming your problem, whatever it might be. And once you learn how to apply them, mindfulness techniques are free, with no horrible side-effects, unlike some of the other treatments on offer.
If you would like to find out more about how mindfulness could help you, email firstname.lastname@example.org