Mindfulness Meditation – Not just a hippy thing!

I wanted to write about mindfulness meditation as my next blog topic as it is an approach I am increasingly using with therapy clients, and in my own life, to help with sleep and relaxation.

Mindfulness is a branch of meditation rooted in eastern philosophy and religion, but is increasingly used across a number of health settings, and is accumulating a very impressive research base, suggesting significant health benefits – but I will come to the evidence later.

What exactly it is?

Just think for a moment how much of our mental time and energy is spent thinking about past events, or predicting the future, and how little of the time is spent experiencing the present moment.  Mindfulness is all about experiencing the present moment, fully, without judgment, without distraction.

People lucky enough to have passions in which they can immerse themselves, talk of ‘getting lost in it’, ‘switching off from everything else’, ‘being in the zone’. Artists, sportsmen, mathematicians all describe this quality of experience.  Doing something that grounds them in that present moment, without the pull of distractions, either from outside or within.

Those of us without such passions can experience this too.  But it can be hard to begin with.  For example, just take 60 seconds right now to look at your own hand.  Look at it.  Scrutinise, non-judgmentally, every detail.  Describe it to yourself.  The contours, lines, textures.

How did you do?  My bet is that you got distracted within seconds of this task starting.  That you probably didn’t even realize you had got distracted for several seconds.  That you were quick to make judgments about your hands (‘I didn’t realize my thumb was so fat’. ‘I hate my nails’. ‘I’ve got great hands’.)  That you were quick to make judgments about this task (‘This is too hard’.  ‘This is pointless’.  ‘Jamie’s taking the piss’.)

When I asked my wife to do this for the first time, she reported that within milliseconds of starting she had planned out the next three Friday night family dinners, decided who was coming and what we were all eating!  Our minds are like untrained puppies.  They’re all over the place and don’t do what we want most of the time.  Mindfulness exercises are a great way to start training our mind, so that when we need it to be, it will be more under our control.

What’s so good about a trained mind?

Ever had a restless night when your mind is racing and you can’t sleep?  Ever struggled to listen to a friend or colleague because you can’t stop thinking about something else?  Ever struggled to watch a film or read a book because you were distracted by thoughts about what happened earlier in the day.  Of course you have!  What’s more, many of us are prone to worry thoughts.  Negative thinking that results in increased anxiety and stress levels.  Thoughts about the past (‘why did I say that, what an idiot!’), thoughts about the future (‘It’s going to be a nightmare, I don’t know how I’ll cope’), judgments about the present (‘I can’t cope with these thoughts, I’m never going to fall asleep’).  Being more ‘mindful’, that is, getting better at controlling your attention, and experiencing the present moment without judgment, has been scientifically proven to help with all of these difficulties, and can be learnt through regular practice.  Just like going to the gym, it can feel hard to begin with, but with enough effort progress is easily attained.

Go on then, how do I do it?

The great thing about Mindfulness is that you can do it in any situation.  Anything you do can be done more mindfully.  Brushing your teeth, eating a meal, taking a bath, listening to music, walking to the bus stop, even breathing can be done be mindfully.  Choose something to do mindfully everyday, dedicate five minutes to it and follow these simple instructions:

  • Bring all of your attention to that activity
  • Allow yourself to experience it fully
  • Notice when you get distracted (this will happen numerous times)
  • Do not judge yourself for getting distracted – it is normal and part of the process
  • Bring you mind back on to the task at hand

Breathing is a good one because you always do it.  We never really notice our breathing and yet it can be such a powerful anchor, grounding us in the present moment.  Notice your breath, the sensation of it passing through your nose and mouth.  The feeling of your chest and stomach expanding.  The sound your breath makes as it passes up and down your narrow nasal passage.  These principles can be pretty much applied to any activity.

Some people ask me what the point is.  Do I really need to know the sound of my own breath?  No you don’t.  But getting better at grounding yourself in the present moment has many advantages, particularly for those of us vulnerable to worry thoughts and rumination.

I also recommend going on Youtube.  There are loads of really good Mindfulness videos that talk you through the process.  I particularly recommend the work of Dr Elisha Goldstein PhD, who you can also follow on twitter at @Mindful_Living.

 So how has it helped you and your clients?

I have found Mindfulness most useful in its approach to experiencing emotions, both personally and in my clinical work.  When stressed we normally fight the emotion, try to battle with it, over-power it.  This causes more mental tension, turning pain into suffering.  Mindfulness teaches us that if we allow ourselves to experience that emotion, in all its glory, it will pass quicker, and probably be less severe.  There are two particularly useful strategies I have found helpful:

  • Next time you’re in distress, mindfully decide to allow yourself to experience that emotion.  Not just the thoughts that are causing it, but the physical and emotional feelings that go with them.  Just like the breathing example above, describe to yourself, non-judgmentally, what is happening inside your body.  Apply the principles bulleted above.  Doing this has been shown to reduce the duration and severity of emotional AND physical pain.  Try focusing on your physical pain in this way next time your back plays up and see what happens. 
  • If you are struggling with negative thinking, and the exercise above is too difficult because the thoughts are too distracting, try this.  Use mental imagery to put yourself somewhere comfortable and relaxing.  Every time a thought comes into your mind introduce that thought into your mental image.  Observe it, and let it pass, naturally.  For example, you’re sat on a river bank (in your mind).  Every time you have a thought, instead of getting wrapped up or lost in it, or try to force it away, you watch that thought float by on a leaf on the river.  You are an observer of the thought, not a victim of it.  Allow the thought to pass on the leaf in its own time.  Watch it go.  Smile as it does.  If it comes back, do it again.  If two thoughts turn up, but both on a leaf.  Use any imagery that works for you.  One client used the image of him holding loads of helium balloons.  Every time a thought came to him he let go of the string to that balloon and watched the thought float way.

Using either of these strategies at night time, when we can be most vulnerable to negative thinking, is a great way to get some sleep.

So, what’s he evidence for it?

There is plenty of scientific evidence demonstrating the effectiveness of becoming more Mindful – some of this has recently been summarized in a great article in the LA Times.  It has been shown to be helpful in reducing anxiety, improving mood , coping with physical pain  and improving cognitive functioning (attention, reasoning etc.) to name but a few.  Mindfulness has been integrated into several forms of psychotherapy including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Dialectical Behaviour Therapy, and is also a stand alone intervention approach.  It is a staple part of pain management programs and can be more effective for managing chronic pain than opiates.  It has been taken up by the USA military, where it has been shown to reduce post traumatic stress and depression, and improve engagement in life activities and self-awareness.  The military have predictably rebranded it ‘mind fitness training’.  It is used across a range of health settings, is heavily researched, and is easily accessible on line, via Youtube and Google, where you can also learn more about the brain-science behind it through interesting talks and lectures

So, as well as hitting the gym in time for holiday season, start another type of training this Spring.  It might really help!

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