The purpose of this article is to give you a brief introduction to the practice of Mindfulness; What it is. Who it is for? What’s the theory behind it? What does it entail/consist of? And what are the purported benefits associated with its practice?
I have read and attempted to condense the content of the first three chapters of the book Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world, by Mark Williams and Danny Penman, in which all the above questions are answered. I myself, have also participated in a group therapy Mindfulness programme, based on the 8-week programme outlined in the book.
So, what exactly is Mindfulness?
I have my work cut out for me, in the sense that Mindfulness is, in itself, quite a nebulous concept, and as such, is rather difficult to define in a succinct and bite-size manner. This, combined with the fact that the authors explain it is better understood through experience, as opposed to academic study, means it has been a real struggle. Nevertheless, I have given it a red hot crack, and as always, I hope I have provided enough information and insight to allow you to make an informed decision as to whether or not you feel it is something you may benefit from and fancy giving a go.
So, let’s get into it!
Essentially, Mindfulness is a practice, and a way of being, that is based on Buddhist practices of meditation and mental training. At its core, it is about cultivating a sense of awareness and attention to the present moment, the here and now. However, it is much more than that. Through this newfound sense of awareness, you are able to foster a sense of, distance, and space, between you and your thoughts, feelings and emotions. This detachment affords you the opportunity to choose to respond differently to negative thoughts, feelings and emotions; such as anxiety, stress, sadness, exhaustion…and in doing so, prevent them from spiraling downwards into prolonged periods of unhappiness, exhaustion, or even serious clinical depression.1
Who is Mindfulness for?
Mindfulness is for EVERYONE! Whilst Mindfulness is commonly used as a primary therapy (Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy, MBCT), or as an adjunct to other forms of therapy for diagnosable mental health conditions (depression, OCD etc.), everyone experiences negative feelings, thoughts, sensations and emotions, and no one is immune from the effects of anxiety, stress, exhaustion and unhappiness. No matter to what degree you experience any of the above, Mindfulness can help anyone to cope with such difficulties, and prevent them from becoming lingering or even permanent features of our lives. Thus, Mindfulness is for, and can benefit, EVERYONE!
So what’s the theory behind it? How does mindfulness help us to deal with our troubled minds?
In order to answer this, we must first understand how are minds work, starting with our emotions…
So what exactly is an emotion? It’s just how we feel at a particular time, right? Well, apparently emotions are far more complex than that. Emotions are not a single entity, existing in, and of, only themselves; they are in fact, an amalgamation, of “Thoughts”, “Feelings”, “Bodily Sensations”, and “Impulses”. While you may say that there is one overarching “feeling”, for example, you might describe yourself as feeling, exhausted, sad, tense, angry… this “general mood”, or “state of mind”, is the combination of each of these constituent components, created when your mind fuses each of them together.
As Mark Williams and Danny Penman (The authors of the book) put it,
“Emotions are like a background colour that’s created when your mind fuses together all of these thoughts, feelings, impulses and bodily sensations to conjure up an overall guiding theme, or state of mind. It’s a phenomenally intricate dance full of subtle interactions that we’re only now beginning to understand”.2
It was previously thought by science that our thoughts were responsible for driving our moods and emotions. However, in the 1980’s it was discovered that the process could also run in reverse, whereby our moods can drive our thoughts.3
Consequently, a vicious and negative cycle can emanate from a single thought, or a few moments of sadness. Whether it’s the moment of sadness which triggers an upsetting thought, which then leads to more feelings of sadness, or an upsetting thought which triggers a feeling of sadness, leading to more upsetting thoughts, both can ignite an interplay of feelings and thoughts, which feed of one another and perpetuate to drag you into further sadness.
This cycle can occur with all moods and emotions, such as “stress”, “anxiety”, “fear”, etc.
Thoughts and feelings are parts of emotions that happen in the mind, however the interconnectivity between the mind and body means that our “bodily sensations” and “impulses” (the other components of an emotion) can also get involved in this cycle in exactly the same way. Our body and mind are constantly sharing emotional information, what we feel in our body is heavily influenced by our thoughts and emotions, and visa versa, our feelings and thoughts can be coloured by what we experience in our bodies.
It’s an intricate, interrelated system, whereby changes in one component can set off a chain reaction, which can develop into a self-perpetuating cycle.
To add to this, we rarely experience an emotion in isolation; they usually come in pairs or groups, creating, what the authors dub, “emotional constellations”. Throughout our lives, these “emotional constellations”, (which I think it would be fair to re-label, “emotional shit storms”, as the word constellation evokes an image far too pretty to capture the essence of such a posse of troubling emotions), can become intertwined with specific thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and even behaviour. Consequently, the flick of one switch in the system, whether that be a thought, bodily sensation etc. can result in a flood of emotions, an “emotional shit storm”
Nevertheless, there is no need to fear! Whilst the last few paragraphs have surely painted a gloomy sky, filled with troublesome looking clouds (and potentially set of an emotional shit storm in you, the reader’s mind), those clouds are soon to part, as the ray of light that is Mindfulness is primed to shine through and remind us that such clouds need not become permanent fixtures in our mind’s sky.
As troubling as these emotions are, and as easily and as quickly as they can create a downward spiral, Mindfulness teaches us that they are transient, they will pass eventually if we allow them to. It is the way we tend to deal with them that is the problem and is what causes them to stick around.
“Doing Mode”, and its alternative, “Being Mode”
So what exactly are we doing when these troubling thoughts and emotions arise that causes them to stick around and generate a downward spiral? To help us understand this, the authors explain a little more about how the human mind works.
Everyone who has watched any nature documentary will undoubtedly have heard the narrator refer to the “fight or flight” response. All animals experience this response when exposed to danger and threat. It kicks in automatically when a threat arrives, and, as its name suggests, compels the animal to either “fight” it’s way out of danger, or take “flight” so as to avert injury or death. Humans are no different: We too possess this “fight or flight” response. In the same way, it was a vital response/defence mechanism, which allowed us to survive in the wild in our more primitive days, when we too were regularly exposed to such external threats as a ravenous lion or tiger, or whichever terrifying beast you care to imagine.
The problem is today, thankfully, we do not encounter such life or death situations, as we have, to a large extent, left the treacherous environment of the jungle or plains behind us, in favour of the relative safety of the urbanised environment.
Our Brains however, have retained the “fight of flight” response, so crucial to our survival in the wild, despite our departure from its realm. In many ways this is a good thing too, as the urban world is not without its physical external threats. However, the problem is, that the part of our brain which is responsible for this response, the Amygdala, remains, as you might expect, given that it developed to cope with primeval conditions and scenarios, a very primitive, unsophisticated and simplistic part of our brain. Consequently, it interprets threat in a very rudimentary and indiscriminate fashion. It is unable to distinguish between a real, external threat, and the internal threat of a troubling thought, feeling or memory. As a result, our brain automatically deals with an internal threat as something that needs to either be fought off and expunged, or run from, until it is far enough away that it no longer poses a threat to us.
This is where the problem starts. This response is automatic and there is nothing we can do about its occurrence. It causes its own initial problems, as the detection of a threat causes and immediate physical response within the body, such as muscle tension, blood draining away from the skin, accelerated heartbeat, churning stomach etc. As we learnt in the previous section, bodily sensations are one of the constituent parts of an emotion, and a change in any part of an emotion can set off a chain reaction, bringing about the arrival of an “emotional constellation” or as I have dubbed them, an “emotional shit storm”.
The real problem starts however, when we actively engage in the “fight or flight” response, treating the internal threat (emotion, thought, feeling, sensation etc) as something that needs to be dealt with, something that needs to be solved, fought off, or run from, until it is eradicated and no longer a danger to us. When we do this, we are employing what the authors call, “doing mode”. We use “rational critical thinking,”4 to analyse the problem and come up with a logical solution. Our minds are extremely adept at doing this; they are like problem solving machines, with highly tuned analytical and problem-solving skills. This is great! You might think. What is so bad about this? We have a problem, and we have brains that are highly sophisticated problem-solving machines, ergo, we have no problem!
This is the case for many of the problems we face in our external world, such as the need to navigate through a city, to build something, to come up with a solution to a work problem etc. However, the problem is, emotions are not problems to be solved. In fact, what mindfulness teaches us, is that it is our very attempt to solve our emotions that causes them to develop and spiral out of control. It is this misplaced effort to expunge them which causes, what could otherwise have been a fleeting moment or period, to perpetuate into a long period of anxiety, stress, unhappiness, exhaustion, or even depression.
So why doesn’t it work? Why does trying to solve an emotion actually serve to exacerbate the issue? According to the authors, it is due to the methods our mind employs when trying to solve the emotion. You see where you are, “unhappy” and where you want to be, “happy”. Your mind immediately starts to problem solve by trying to ascertain what it is that is making you unhappy and what is the solution to this unhappiness? How can you bridge the gap between where you are now and where you want to be?
By posing these questions, and searching for a gap-bridging solution, you end up highlighting and focussing on the gap. You intently focus on what is making you unhappy and what is preventing you from reaching your goal. You begin to ask harsher and harsher questions of yourself, like, “What is wrong with me?” “Why aren’t I happy?” “Where am I going wrong?” “What mistakes am I making?”
In what seems like a perfectly logical move, your mind begins to traipse through your memory bank to uncover all the times you have felt this way, every time you have felt this emotion. It seeks to establish a connection, a causal link; to find the common thread that runs through each situation, and in doing so, find a solution. Our minds are intimately connected with memory, and consequently, they are incredibly good at doing this. Before long, you have brought every similar negative feeling, emotion, thought etc from the past, right to the forefront of your mind, reliving each and every one of them. To add to this, your mind begins to ponder the implications of not
being able to solve the predicament that is your current emotion. “What will happen if I can’t fix this feeling?” “Will things get worse?” “Will I feel this way forever?”. In doing so you become lumbered with even more negative thoughts.
You become engulfed in an “emotional shit storm” of epic proportions. The flicking of one emotional switch has triggered the chain reaction we learnt about earlier, and consequently we become plagued with more troubling emotions, thoughts, feelings, sensations, impulses, etc. These all begin to feed off of one another, and a real, vicious, self-perpetuating, cycle has begun. You become trapped inside your thoughts, you begin overthinking and brooding. Once again, rather than helping you to escape from the mire of your melancholy, it causes you to sink further.
The only way to escape this vicious cycle, is to learn to develop, and harness, an alternative mode to “doing mode”…”being mode”.
So what exactly is “being mode”? As we have learnt, the mind, in “doing mode”, is capable of thinking, judging, planning, and trawling through past memories in search of solutions.5 However, the mind is also aware. We do not just think about things; we are aware that we are thinking. It is this awareness that Mindfulness meditation seeks to cultivate and harness. Being mode transcends thinking and provides us with a place – a vantage point – from which we can witness our own thoughts and feelings as they arise. As we occupy this place, a space is created between us and our thoughts. This space provides us with the opportunity/ability to observe our thoughts, and in doing so, to spot when we begin to engage in the negative practices of “doing mode”, attempting to solve our emotional state. We are then able to remind ourselves that Mindfulness teaches, and has shown, that such efforts are futile and destructive, that emotions are not problems to be solved. Emotions are transient, and if we allow ourselves to simply notice them, and experience them, rather than attempt to solve them, or escape from them, they will pass of their own accord.
What does a mindfulness meditation consist of?
A typical meditation consists of focusing your full attention on your breath as it flows in and out of your body. Focusing on your breath in this way allows you to observe your thoughts as they arise in your mind and, little by little, to let go of struggling with them. You come to realise that thoughts come and go of their own accord; and that you are not your thoughts. You can watch as they appear in your mind, seemingly from thin air, and watch as they disappear, like a soap bubble bursting. You come to the profound understanding that thoughts and feelings (including negative ones) are transient. They come and they go, and ultimately you have a choice about whether to act on them or not.6
The book, with its accompanying CD, takes you step by step through each one of the meditations in the eight-week programme. It is also available in digital format for Kindle at the amazon store. (See end of article for link)
Allaying any reservations or fears you may have
Is it all a load of airy fairy codswallop?
Immediately some westerners, (in my opinion, rather wrongly) view and treat any Eastern practice with a large helping of suspicion and derision. We hear the words Buddhism, meditation, mindfulness, awareness, zen…and we immediately think hokum! Instantly we assume that we will be thrust into an orange robe, forced to shave our heads to within a millimetre of a scalping, and made to sit and chant by a koi pond, as wind chimes tinkle relentlessly in the background.
Alternatively, we envision ourselves becoming trapped in some kind of hippie commune, led by a woman named mumma something or other, who no doubt emerged from between the thighs of “Mother Earth” and now walks said earth, wrapped in some kind of dowdy, environmentally friendly swaddling, adorned with a collection of beads that, were they gold, would outweigh Mr T’s collection, with flowers protruding from every available crevice, who talks in such dulcet tones that it can only be assumed she has been hit with a dart designed to sedate a rampant rhinoceros, and who’s idea of breakfast is placenta with a side of wheatgrass and a glass of freshly squeezed breastmilk.
We think of those who espouse such concepts as unqualified charlatans, whose practices are unsubstantiated and lack any evidential basis. However, in the case of mindfulness, as I will outline later, there is mountains of Western scientific evidence which demonstrates its efficacy and the multiply benefits associated with its practice.
I’m not religious/I’m not a fan of religion; is it religious?
Although it is derived from Buddhism, it is a practice which has been very much extracted from its original Buddhist roots, and thus no longer has any real religious basis or connotations.
Does practising mindfulness take up a lot of time?
Mindfulness practise does not take up a lot of time, although some patience and persistence are required. Many people soon find that meditation actually liberates them from the pressures of time, so they have more of it to spend on other things.7 (This concept is obviously somewhat confusing; however, it is explained in detail in the book).
Is mindfulness meditation complicated?
Meditation is not complicated, nor is it about “success” or “failure”. Even when meditation feels difficult, you’ll have learned something valuable about the workings of the mind, and thus will have benefited psychologically.8
So what are the benefits of mindfulness?
Well, according to the authors, scientific research has shown that there is a veritable smorgasbord of benefits associated with the practicing of mindfulness. They include as follows:
Over time, Mindful meditation brings about long-term changes in mood, levels of happiness and wellbeing
Prevents depression, or relapse thereof
Positively affects the brain patterns underlying day to day anxiety, stress, depression, irritability, so that when such feelings arise, they dissolve away more easily, reducing the effects of each
Scientific studies show that regular meditators see their doctors less often and spend less days in hospital
Increases reaction times
Scientific studies show that regular meditators are happier and more content on average. Such positive emotions have been linked to a longer and healthier life.
Increases mental and physical stamina
Regular meditators have been shown to enjoy more fulfilling relationships
Regular meditation reduces the key indicators of chronic stress, including hypertension
Reduces the impact of chronic pain and cancer
Helps to relieve drug and alcohol dependence
Brings about an increased sense of purpose
Reduces feelings of isolation and alienation
Decreases symptoms of illness such as headaches, chest pain, congestion and weakness
Increases resilience and ability to deal with life’s trial and tribulations
Bolsters the immune system to help fight off colds, flu and other diseases
Increases our sense of human connectedness, as it helps to mediate empathy. This can have a hugely beneficial impact on our health and well being
Brain imaging has shown that the areas of the brain associated with such positive emotions as happiness, empathy, and compassion, become stronger and more active as people meditate. Conversely, those areas of the brain associated with unhappiness, anxiety and stress, begin to dissolve, leaving a profound sense of reinvigoration. Research has shown that it doesn’t take long for these changes to occur. A period of 8 weeks is sufficient for you to see the benefits for yourself
Previously it was thought that people have an emotional thermostat, a set point which determined how happy you were. Fluctuations could occur, however they would always return to this point. Some people had an innately happy disposition, while others had a natural tendency to be more miserable. It was thought that this was determined by genetics and was set in stone. This theory has been shattered by medical studies which have shown that Mindfulness can help people escape the gravitational pull of their emotional set point by altering the physical structure of the brain itself, resetting your emotional thermostat for the better. Consequently, our underlying level of happiness is greater, making us more likely to feel happy than sad; to live with ease, rather than being angry or aggressive, and be energised, rather than tired or listless.9
So there you have it! Mindfulness in as small a nutshell as a self-confessed waffler can manage.
I hope that I have succeeded in providing you with an insight into the practice of Mindfulness, and its many purported benefits, and that you may now feel tempted to give it a go and experience them for yourself.
Williams, M. and Penman, D. Mindfulness: a practical guide to FINDING PEACE IN A FRANTIC WORLD, Great Britain, Piatkus, 2011.
M.Williams and D.Penman, Mindfulness: a practical guide to FINDING PEACE IN A FRANTIC WORLD, Great Britain, Piatkus, 2011.