This article was first published in The Rotary News in March 2019.
Most religions and spiritual practices have their own repertoire of a variety of meditative practices. Mindful meditation and mindfulness however have no religious trappings and anyone, from any walk of life can (and should) incorporate mindfulness and mindful meditation into their life for just a few minutes in a day to perceive the benefits.
The practice of mindfulness and the corresponding meditative practices have gained scientific attention after several studies; especially from the Center For Mindfulness at University of Massachusetts have explored the benefits. S.N Goenka, a Burmese-Indian, the founder of Vipasana Meditation and more recently, John Kabat-Zinn from University of Massachusetts have been instrumental in popularizing Mindfulness.
Improvement in physical ailments through this mind-body method is now accepted as a very important complement to mainline management of disease. The improvement in psychological health, cognition, decision-making capability, social relationships and general wellbeing are recognised as some of the benefits of mindfulness.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is nothing but the non-judgmental conscious and purposeful awareness of the present moment. So what’s so wonderful about that you may ask! If you think about it, there is nothing but the present moment. The past is over and the future is not yet here. Being aware of the present moment keeps us more engaged and involved with our lives as it plays out in real time.
Have you been with your kids while distracted and wishing to be elsewhere? Have you driven home reliving an argument with a co-worker, angry and resentful, unable to even recalled your drive? Have you sometimes looked back and wondered where the day had disappeared, having no memory of it? Have you sat in front of your TV and gone through an enormous bag of chips with no real recollection of having eaten it? These are all examples of mindlessness that are typical and not helpful. They rob us of the present moment and spin us into a realm that does not even currently exist.
|– Anxious worrying or rumination can cause you to eat mindlessly, leading to obesity and all the subsequent repercussions.
– Lack of mindfulness can keep you disconnected from your body and the continuous signals your body sends you. So you may be unaware for instance that what you are really feeling is fatigue or thirst and not hunger and reach for food in a distracted and mindless manner.
– Lack of mindfulness can manifest as a lack of awareness of social cues, another person’s body language or even an understanding what they are really saying leading to misunderstanding and grief.
Mindfulness is also the ability to observe without judgment the present moment with its pain, suffering, joy, happiness or feelings of insecurity and recognize it for what it is. Being mindful of the situation as it is helps us firstly concede it and then, when required, make the necessary changes to improve it. So, for instance, if you are angry or disappointed with someone, observing and recognizing that emotion for what it is and then questioning oneself to reveal the source of the anger/disappointment will help us deal with it far better that just acting out on impulse, mindlessly. In fact, embracing the feeling of anxiety or pain instead of trying to escape from it can tell us much about ourselves, increasing self-awareness.
This habit of being present without judgment and being open to acknowledging what is happening in real time transforms our relationship with ourselves, creating a higher level of self-awareness that most of us lack. Our bodies and minds have an innate wisdom and capacity to, for instance, indicate to us what is truly wrong and what is going on within. The only trouble is, we don’t listen because we are too busy living life at high speed and mostly through virtual reality with photographs and social media, comparing, wishing and judging.
Being mindful is a habit. The thoughts in our head can actually cause or aggravate disease or precipitate emotion; our thoughts matter.
Being aware of what they are therefore is critical to our wellbeing. Research from the University of Massachusetts Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR program have shown the benefits of mindfulness and mindfulness-based practices for a variety of medical conditions such as anxiety (Otner 2007), pain (Zeidan 2016) and even skin conditions like psoriasis (Kabat-Zinn 1998). The improvement in such conditions, using mindful meditation appears to be the result of the deepening awareness of our own thought processes related to the disease or pain we suffer. Thinking in a particular manner about our pain or disease can actually increase that pain or alter the course of the disease. Being aware of just how we react to or think about/view our pain or disease will help us modify those thoughts when required thereby altering the pain or disease. Being conscious when we start to ruminate about a negative outcome or recognizing that our pain in the back is aggravated when we are stressed (not necessarily physically) is helpful to alter the course of the physical condition. Mindfulness also has several benefits for our emotional and thinking brain –
- Mindfulness calms the brain by quieting the parts of the brain (the Amygdyla) responsible for the fight-or-flight response (Lutz, Davidson et al 2008)
- It aids in stress reduction (Goldin et al 2010)
- It helps regulating emotions to improve emotional intelligence (Chiesa et al 2010)
- Improves attention and focus (Baijal et al 2011)
- Reduction in depression (Napoli et al 2005)
Steps to being more mindful –
- Pay attention to simple things – it could be something as simple as taking a shower. Be conscious of the water, the temperature, the sound and feel of the experience. It does not matter if you are enjoying it or otherwise. Just be conscious of the sensations and moment. Make it a habit
- Breathe – Sounds so simple. Rarely are we conscious of our breathing. Make it a habit to become aware of your breath at frequent intervals through the day. It could be every time you move from one project to another, or one client to another or when you walk down a corridor or get yourself a glass of water; stop and breathe.
- Listen to your body – Sometimes we are aware that there is some vague pain or discomfort in our bodies. We may not however really pay attention to how the body moves or how we sit, stand, eat or engage.
How do we position our hips, feet, back, arms? Is there tension in some part of the body? Is it aggravated by the way we move or sit? Do we favor one side more than the other? Is one side weaker? Is our core engaged? These are not always aspects of ourselves we pay attention to. Doing so will bring a deeper awareness of our own bodies. This in turn keeps us tuned into our bodies, working with it instead of against it. Doing things to keep it well.
- Be aware of your thoughts –recognize your thoughts as they play out in your head. Don’t judge or be upset by them. Just be aware of them.
- Use all your senses – try to use all your senses from time to time. When you go for a walk outside for instance be conscious of the sights, smells and sounds. When you are cooking, be conscious of the color of the vegetables, the feel of them as the knife goes through them, the changing smells when you cook and so on. Even cutting vegetables can be a mindfully meditative process!
- Engage fully – This is especially important when you interact with people. Engaging with them fully allows not only for better understanding and relationship but also makes them feel valued when you are present and completely involved. In our fast paced world we tend to skim through interactions without much thought leaving everyone concerned feeling inconsequential and the whole interaction quite superficial.
- Practice – Mindfulness based meditative practices may last for as short as ten minutes. You can source many of them online on YouTube. You could try the courses offered ones by Kabat-Zinn or Vipasana meditation by Goenka..
- Do yoga – Yoga practices linking movement and the breath are great to help us become more mindful.
How does meditating for ten minutes help you may ask! Practicing this form of meditation for even ten minutes every day will allow the habit of mindfulness to seep into the rest of your day. The practice may be anything from Breath meditation to Body Scans or an actual Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction – MBSR session. Create a regular practice that you commit to every day, preferably at the same time of the day. Over time, this becomes your way of ‘being’ not just ‘doing’.
Mindfulness has a wide range of benefits from disease management to a general improved sense of wellbeing and increased productivity. Do you wonder sometimes why you are not able to get things done? Why you can’t focus your attention when needed? Why you find it difficult to express yourself properly as your thoughts careen from one thing to another? Why you overeat when you know you shouldn’t or why you can’t sleep with those thoughts spinning around in your head in an endless loop of melodrama? Mindful meditation and a continued practice of mindfulness on a consistent basis may be the answer to calming the mind and creating a more peaceful focused and meaningful life experience.
Dr. Sheela Nambiar MD ObGyn
Lifestyle Medicine Physician DipLM BSLM
Fitness Consultant NAFC
Author of – Get Size Wise, Gain To Lose & Fit After 40.