I was on a Mindfulness course last week- Mindfulness is a really hot topic with Mental Health workers at the moment. I have been working with Mindfulness for around 4 years, so I thought I would scrub up on my techniques and ideas and get back into my Mindful practice for myself!
Did you know that in 2012 there were 40 new papers on mindfulness published every month according to Google Scholar? Guardian journalist Barney Ronay noted that 37 new books had been released that week alone! I think that this demonstrates just how popular mindfulness has become.
Mindfulness, the act of paying attention, in a non-judgmental way, to ones own experiences of the here and now. So, what exactly does that mean? Well, exactly what it says- paying attention to what is happening to you, around you, in the moment that you notice them.
Whenever anyone is going on a mindfulness course, the first thing people who are experienced in mindfulness will say to him or her is “Wait until you do the raisin exercise!” What? What on earth is that? Well, a good way to explain mindfulness is to take a raisin. Don’t eat it- you are jumping the gun there! Hold it in your hand. Have you ever really looked at a raisin? Have you noticed the colours? Have you held it up to the light and looked at the brown and amber hues that are in front of you? Have you ever looked at the creases, the ridges, and the folds? The size of the raisin or the shape of it? Have you felt it between your fingers? Is it squishy? Hard? Smooth? Textured?
No? I am sure you haven’t. Not really. Not closely.
Well, let’s not stop there! Pick up the raisin. Put it to your ear. Do you hear anything? No, of course you don’t, but then roll the raisin between your fingers. Can you hear the squeakiness of the raisin now? The slight grinding as you roll the raisin between your fingers?
Take the raisin and hold it up to your nose. Take a deep breathe in- can you smell it? What does it remind you of? Christmas cake? Cinnamon rolls? Is it a slight smell, or pungent?
Now, put the raisin in your mouth- but don’t chew it or swallow it! Roll it around in your mouth and really feel it. Put it between your teeth, give it a little squeeze. Can you feel the textures and the taste starting to spread? Gently chew the raisin, experience the flavour. Is it sweet? Bitter? Finally, swallow.
Now. I bet you haven’t experienced a raisin like that before, have you? You could do the same with making a cup of tea or brushing your teeth- any activity that you do during the day, that you can break down and really pay attention too!
So, what on earth has fiddling with a raisin for the last 10 minutes done for you, eh? Well, by exercising all of your five senses, your cortisol level has decreased (stress hormone) and you will feel calmer than you did before you started. By looking at things from a visual, auditory, kinaesthetic, gustatory and olfactory sense (see, hear, touch, taste, smell!) you have brought yourself into the present moment. You are not thinking of that annoying colleague today at work and you are not thinking of all the work you need to do tonight to prepare for tomorrow. You are in the moment, and that moment is peaceful and calm.
So, by practising this every day (for those of you in the know, it is VAKGO. Yep, snazzy, eh?) we can just stop what is happening, take a few minutes out of life to relax and calm down, before we go on to the next busy period of the day.
So, how exactly does being mindful, which can actually be a personality trait anyway, actually be beneficial? A study in 2011 suggests that
“Evidence suggests that mindfulness practice is associated with neuroplastic changes in the anterior cingulate cortex, insula, temporo-parietal junction, fronto-limbic network, and default mode network structures” (Hölzel et al., 2011)
Say, what?! Well, what this means is that by practicing mindfulness, area’s of the brain, associated with neuroplastic changes (referring to changes in neural pathways and synapses that occur due to changes in behavior, environment, neural processes, thinking, and emotions – as well as to changes resulting from bodily injury) in areas of the brain that are responsible for attention, focus and regulation. Simply put, by utilizing mindfulness you can actually change the structure of your brain (the area’s that are ‘plastic’) for your benefit; to increase your sense of personal perspective awareness, your attention and focus, your emotional regulation and your body awareness.
Nah, that’s not real. Once your born, your brain doesn’t change. Well, actually it does- as we grow so does our brain. Our neural pathways and synapses develop and change, according to our environment, what we learn, what we don’t learn and genetics. So, if we train our brain to be present in the moment, really present, we can grow the area that we use to focus and pay attention. What magic is this, I hear you ask? Well, it is simply the wonder of the human mind- although science has come along way over the last 100 years, we still do not really know how the brain functions; we are learning more every week.
So, if mindfulness is so magic, why isn’t everyone doing it? Well, I cannot answer that one, I am afraid! What I can say is that mindfulness is NOT a cure all. It is a technique you can use to develop and enhance your day-to-day life. In fact, there are studies available that say certain people should not practice mindfulness; a study in 2012 concluded that there was not enough data available to fully analyse who should or should not partake in mindfulness meditation or therapy, but that people for whom there are deep-seated mental health difficulties or long term psychological affects, mindfulness meditation may not be appropriate (Dobkin, Irving and Amar, 2012).
The reason that mindfulness may not be appropriate for some people is that the act of mindfulness takes us deep in to meditation- by doing so, we are relaxing and allowing ourselves to be in the moment. If you have any traumatic experiences that you perhaps haven’t dealt with, or that still trouble you, the by going in to the mindful state can reduce your inhibitions, and the safety mechanisms, the defence mechanisms you have in place, to protect you from your difficult thoughts, are suddenly lowered, which can leave you in a very troubled place.
So, this blog then becomes a cautionary tale! Mindfulness, to some, seems like it is a waste of time, however, this is not what we are seeing from the studies that are coming out. Mindfulness has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression and to help with many other issues people have. However, it is not a one size fits all therapeutic achievement. In fact, if you are not in the right place in your life, in the right state of mind, mindfulness could in fact be quite dangerous for you- raising traumatic memories that you have repressed, hidden deep down or simply memories that you actually don’t want to, or can’t, deal with. Mindfulness is not the be all and end all that we originally thought it to be, the studies are showing this, but. That said, it could really work for some people.
So, if you are having difficulty sleeping, or are feeling stressed from your busy life, why not take 10 minutes out of your busy day to practice some mindfulness meditation (as long as you are not in the group of people discussed above, for whom mindfulness is contradictive!)? It doesn’t have to be the raisin, although, why not? Perhaps you are just going to use the VAKGO to notice what is going on around you, or you are just going to close your eyes and concentrate on your breath. In and out, slowly, clearly, purposefully. You never know. After 10 minutes of it, you may feel like a whole new person!
Dobkin, P.L., Irving, J.A. and Amar, S. (2012) ‘For Whom May Participation in a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program be Contraindicated?’, Mindfulness, vol. 3, no. 1, March, pp. 44-50.
Hölzel, B.K., Lazar, S.W., Gard, T., Zev, S.O., Vago, D.R. and Ott, U. (2011) ‘How Does Mindfulness Meditation Work? Proposing Mechanisms of Action From a Conceptual and Neural Perspective’, Perspectives on Psychological Science, vol. 6, no. 6, November, pp. 537-559.