What is mindfulness meditation?
Mindfulness is a real buzzword at the moment. From an obscure Buddhist practice it has become recognised by some of the world's leading doctors, scientists and psychologists as a remarkably simple, easy-to-learn yet highly effective tool for improving our physical and mental wellbeing. Jon Kabat-Zinn is one of the leading figures in this mindful movement, and if you want to learn more about it his wonderful book, Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation for Everyday Life, is the best place to start. There's also a great video of him teaching mindfulness to Google employees on YouTube, if you're more visually-minded.
Mindfulness is backed up by a substantial body of research proving it to be an effective weapon against a wide variety of physical and mental ailments. Kabat-Zinn's mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) programme at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center has been running since the 1970s. It has proven effective for people suffering from chronic stress, generalised anxiety disorder and panic, chronic pain, fibromyalgia, MS, psoriasis and cancer.
Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) is an integration of MBSR with cognitive therapy. It was developed by three clinical psychologists – Mark Williams, John Teasdale and Zindel Segal – to teach patients who had experienced depression skills to disengage from habitual, automatic and unhelpful patterns of thought, especially 'rumination', in which the mind goes over and over negative thoughts. The evidence shows that MBCT can halve the relapse rate in patients who repeatedly suffer from depression.
So what is mindfulness? Well, put simply, it's a way of developing the ability to pay deliberate attention to our experience from moment to moment. Rather than worrying about the past or fantasising about the future, it's about being aware of what's going on in our mind, body and day-to-day life – and doing this without judgement. One of the reasons mindfulness is so powerful is that it teaches us to suspend judgement and self-criticism, to regard ourselves and others with kindness and compassion.
At the heart of mindfulness are meditations like the one below – ideally, we will develop a daily practice, even for just 10 minutes every day. Having finally knuckled down to my own daily practice, I can assure you that the results are well worth it. I feel calmer, more centred and less buffeted by the day's many trials and tribulations. But the beauty of mindfulness is that you can practice anywhere, doing anything: washing up, eating, walking, cycling, brushing your teeth. Try taking a break from what the Buddhists call your 'monkey mind' on the way home from work today. Feel the breeze on your skin; really listen to the birds singing and distant murmur of traffic; see the leaves shivering on trees; look at the infinite beauty of clouds and sky. How does it feel?
Here's a short mindfulness meditation for you to try – I recommend doing this as soon as you wake up, when the day's distractions haven't yet crowded their way in. You can also use this any time you feel stressed or anxious:
Mindfulness of breath meditation
- Switch your phone to silent, then set a timer for 10min, so you're not worrying about how long you’ve been meditating.
- Get comfortable – sit in a chair, cross-legged on the floor or lie down.
- Close your eyes and become aware of your breathing. Nothing more, just become aware of the flow of air over your lips and nostrils, in and out. Don’t try to change your breathing, just breathe in and out naturally.
- When your mind gets bored and demands your attention (as it inevitably will), don't give up or criticise yourself. Remember that through meditation we are trying to cultivate awareness – so be aware of your thinking, as you are aware of the sounds you hear and sensations in your body. Gently turn your attention back to your breathing until the timer goes off.
- Once you feel comfortable sitting for 10min, try 15min, then 20min, and so on. And remember that, like anything, the more you practice the easier it gets.
The best thing about mindfulness is that it's free, can be practised anywhere and only takes a few minutes. If you suffer from stress, anxiety, depression or one of the physical ailments listed above, I strongly recommend it.