Mindfulness: Essential for Wellness or a Passing Fad?

Currently mindfulness is all the craze and is the new ‘buzz word’. But mindfulness has actually been around for a long time. With origins in Hinduism and Buddhism, it dates back around 2,500 years. Some of the original Buddhist texts cited practicing mindfulness as being ‘essential in achieving enlightenment’.

So why are we only hearing about this now? Well, Jon Kabat-Zinn planted the seed in the West when he introduced mindfulness in 1979 to the US clinical setting as an effective treatment for people with chronic pain and mental health conditions. Since then the varied applications and benefits of mindfulness have spread like wild-fire. Even a large percentage of high-end CEOs and elite athletes are jumping onboard the mindfulness express. But why?

Let’s take a look at a few aspects of mindfulness:

Starting off with a definition from Kabat-Zinn himself:

“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally.”

Translation: It is about being present (feeling and experiencing) what is actually happening right now by using one or all of your five senses. Thinking, labeling and judging those experiences is breaking the rules. The goal is to just notice things and stay in the moment.    

Let’s look at an example: If you went to your local park and lay on the grass, you could do it mindfully by noticing the grass touching the back of your neck, tuning in to the movement of your hair in the breeze, listening to the "ting ting ting" of building works happening nearby or looking at the ever changing clouds. You are mindful because you are simply feeling, seeing and noticing.

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You will break the mindfulness when you thinking to yourself: “hmm that feels nice on my neck” or “that cloud looks like a rabbit” or “bloody builders ruining my peacefulness”. This isn’t mindfulness because you are now thinking and labelling. By labelling and judging things as good, bad, annoying, looking like a rabbit etc. you are using a different part of your brain.

The thing is, we actually do things mindfully often - without even trying. If you went out for an expensive meal, due to the cost, you might ensure that you remain 100% present (tasting, smelling and experiencing) every flavorsome morsel. Or when you play a game of tennis and due to your focus, you think of nothing much outside of the court until the game finishes. Gardening is often done mindfully, fishing, cooking etc. But while these activities are conducive to mindfulness, they can also be conducted on autopilot while you contemplate other things. It was pointed out to me the other day by a client that the only two things that are basically impossible to do truly mindfully are: thinking and sleeping. Everything else is fair game.

Once you begin to understand how simple mindfulness is; “actually doing what you are doing”. You might start realising things like:

-        Some activities that I once enjoyed I stopped doing because I thought that they no longer interested me. But really, the only thing that changed was that I stopped doing them mindfully.

Or

-        This means that nothing is particularly enjoyable or interesting unless I do it mindfully; because everything loses its richness and detail if done absentmindedly.

Or

-        Good food will taste even better when eaten mindfully. Maybe that’s why I enjoy going out to restaurants so much; I eat mindfully there. At home I just scoff it down without really tasting anything.

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Because mindfulness is using different brain structures to those used when thinking, each time we do it, we are strengthening these areas for future use. The more you do it, the easier it gets. So being present today will increase your chances of being able to fully experience and enjoy something tomorrow. But, it gets better…

A recent Harvard study has shown that mindfulness can actually rewire the brain. Causing certain areas to quite down and others to have more influence. Participant’s amygdala (our brain’s stress center) was reduced in size after just 27 minutes (on average) of practice per day for 8 weeks. Let me hammer this point home: the part of your brain which drives feelings of anxiety and worry can be shrunk by simply being present. Now that’s amazing.

Also, the parts of the brain associated with focus, memory, sleep and emotional regulation become more dense after just two months of daily practice.

But what about the side effects of mindfulness?

Brace yourself.. Well, you might start noticing things and being more present even without trying. Focusing and listening while people speak will become much easier, you might gain the ability to read a full page (and take it in) and/or regain the ability to appreciate the things that you once enjoyed. That's about it. No headaches or dry mouth to worry about.  

But remember, when you first try it, you will be really bad at it. Your thinking brain will jump in and disrupt your mindfulness very quickly. This is normal. But remember - every little bit of mindfulness does add up.  

If you want to have a chat about mindfulness or any other proven ways of getting your mojo back (or your amygdala to behave itself) – all you need to do is get in touch. Enjoy.    

-        Mike