When I say “mindfulness” people hear “meditation” and often they’ve zoned out already, imagining long haired hippies, free love and no alcohol. But mindfulness is for everyone and anyone (whether you’re of the long haired hippy variety or not).
Following a conversation with a lovely person on twitter (@RoseWiltshire who blogs here ) I decided to put together a FAQ to mindfulness.
I’ve heard of mindfulness but I don’t really know what it is? So what is mindfulness….In simple terms it’s about being present in the here and now. We live so much of our lives in the past or in the future without being aware we’re doing it. How many times a day do we replay conversations we’ve already had with people or plan the conversations we intend to have, thinking about the hilarious anecdote we’re going to tell or the sarcastic riposte to someone who’s been annoying us (or is that just me? ). Our minds are experts at jumping out of the present moment. What mindfulness aims to do is help us bring it back and cultivate more awareness of the patterns of our minds and an awareness of the present.
So can I just decide to be more mindful? Well deciding to be more mindful is a first step but unfortunately our brains are their own masters so it will continue to be unruly and follow it’s usual patterns unless we make a conscious effort. Just saying that we’re going to be more mindful isn’t usually enough. This is where meditation comes in. Mindfulness is often described as a practice. The more you do it, the easier it becomes to bring mindfulness to your every day and so sitting down and actually practicing mindfulness is quite necessary. “Boring” I hear you grumble and yes sometimes it is a little dull but it’s also one of the most illuminating exercises that you can do.
OK so I’d like to do some practice, do I just sit and say “ommmmmm” a lot? A frequent misconception about mindfulness is that it’s all about being zen, having no thoughts and chanting. Seriously, people at work who know I practice mindfulness are frequently asking me about whether I’m really chilled out (my usual response is baahahahhahah). So let’s just be clear, mindfulness is not about getting rid of thoughts or existing in a constant state of calm, it’s about bringing more awareness to what is actually going on for us. So that constant feeling of panic? Thoughts that nobody likes you? Great, notice it, observe it, be aware of it. That’s mindfulness.
Ermmm that actually sounds pretty painful, thanks anyway but I think I’ll give it a miss. Yep that was my first response. Who wants to sit and actually draw their attention to what’s going on in their inner world which is frequently difficult? Mindfulness is not about flooding yourself with difficult experience or about sitting and really dwelling. It’s about just observing some of what’s going on for you. The thinking is that we exist in a paradox. The more we push away difficult thoughts or feelings the more they plague us. Mindfulness suggests that actually if we turn towards these experiences (even slightly) then we become less trapped by them, we can get some distance from them and maybe just maybe they loosen their grip on us. Mindfulness practice helps us notice the thoughts or feelings but not necessarily get caught up in them. A thought is just a thought but so often it becomes a whole story. Mindfulness can help us recognise the thought before it becomes a story that’s dragged us down to the pits of despair.
So how has it helped you? I have OCD and generalised anxiety (if you’d like to read more about how they affect me click here and here or indeed any of my previous posts). They’re disorders which are pretty much all about hyper fondness/attachment to our thoughts. An OCD sufferer experiences intrusive thoughts – these are usually unpleasant, terrifying and impossible to turn off. Prior to doing mindfulness, I really thought every thought I had must be true, that it must say something dreadful about me. I did everything in my power to try and get rid of the thoughts. I tried thought suppression (turns out they bounce back louder and in technicolour), I tried avoidance of things that trigger the thoughts (turns out that just makes life pretty small). It wasn’t until I did mindfulness (and intensive CBT too) that I could just see them for what they were – rather weird, creative neural impulses. Mindfulness doesn’t get rid of the thoughts- in fact just yesterday at a meditation workshop run by Buddhist monks I had numerous intrusive thoughts about punching all the Buddhist monks in the back of the head. Time was when I would have run out of the hall sweating and panicking about what it all meant but instead I just sat and watched the thoughts pass on by (and smiled a little at the incongruity of it all).
So what do you think the best way to get into mindfulness is?
There are several ways you can get into mindfulness. There are lots of great books with excellent audio guided meditation which you can do at home. Of course that takes discipline and it’s easy to just not do it. One of the best things I did was an MBCT course. This stands for Mindfulness based Cognitive Therapy and is an 8 week course. There are also MBSR courses (mindfulness based stress reduction). Doing a course provides the framework to get you used to practice as you have daily homework to do. For those that are worried that it’s some kind of group therapy session and that you’ll have to share, it really isn’t. The focus is on mindfulness and your experience of it, not what’s brought you to the class or what you’re struggling with. If a group really isn’t for you then you can also find teachers who do one to one classes (see below for links). For those with OCD and Anxiety I would emphasise that I don’t think that an MBCT course is an alternative to doing CBT and ERP but it’s an excellent add-on that helped consolidate everything I was learning in CBT.
So finally do you have any links to resources?
Yes, yes and yes!
If you would like to do an MBCT or MBSR course then you can find them online. You can find one in your local area by going to this website. There is usually a cost to them although some GP’s or Community Mental Health Teams do refer to mindfulness classes too. If you are going to do one privately (either in a group or one to one) then ensure that the teacher has a good grounding in mindfulness. If all they’ve done is read the book and done the 8 week course themselves then I’d steer clear. Be on the look out for teachers who have studied to teach through the Mindfulness centre at Oxford University, Bangor University or Exeter University. Don’t be afraid to chat to the teachers and ask questions as you’ll get a good feel if they’re the right people for you.
If you’d like to read some books on the topic then here are ones I’d recommend:
The Mindful Way Through Depression – I love this book. It’s so easy to read and to be honest I think it’s a good one for anybody, depression or not. It also comes with guided audio meditations.
Mindfulness workbook for OCD – A great book with practical tasks to use mindfulness in overcoming OCD
Finding Peace in a Frantic World – A book I’ve dipped in and out of and used some of the guided audios. It’s a very popular mindfulness book.
There are so many others. I’ve got some of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s guided audio meditations and he’s also written a number of books, he’s a big name in the mindfulness field. Click here to see a selection of these.
Phew so that’s probably enough info for now! If there’s anything I haven’t answered or you’d like to know more then feel free to post in the comments and I’ll try to answer 🙂