Mindfulness offers all sorts of health and wellbeing benefits, from relieving stress and reducing anxiety, to improving sleep and even lowering blood pressure. In this article, Dr Nina Puren explains the benefits of incorporating mindfulness practice into your life and how to get started.
What is mindfulness?
One of the classical descriptions of mindfulness from Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program, is: “the process of paying attention on purpose to the present moment without judgement.”
How can you be more mindful?
There are lots of ways to be more mindful. A common way is to observe the breath to give the mind an anchor. However, you can also practice mindfulness whilst engaged in daily activities.
There’s a famous description from Buddhism that describes mindfulness as the process whereby when you’re washing the dishes – you wash the dishes. When you’re washing the rice, you wash the rice.
You bring a presence to that process. So, rather than washing the dishes and feeling frustrated or having your mind go into the past or the future or to all the other things you’d rather be doing, you actually attend to washing the dishes with all of your five senses.
Tips for building it into your day
The wonderful thing about mindfulness is that you don’t have to do it for long periods in order to reap the benefits. Just 60 seconds of mindfulness can have a therapeutic effect!
The crucial thing is consistency, but it doesn’t matter what type of mindfulness you do.
Your awareness is exactly like a muscle. We have a “thinking mind” and an “observing mind”. Usually we are engulfed in our thinking mind, but there’s a part of our mind that’s able to observe ourselves thinking. This is the part that’s strengthened when we do a mindfulness practice such as 60 seconds of paying attention to your breath.
An example of how to do it is to count each inhale and exhale as one, for 60 seconds. Bring awareness to the breath on the in breath and out breath, as though you are stroking the full length of a violin bow across the strings.
Inevitably, you’ll become aware that your mind is being pulled into the past or the future, because this is what the mind does. Each time you notice that and come back to counting the breath, you’re actually strengthening this part of the mind called the “observer self”.
Another nice entry point is to make a decision that for the entire time you’re making a cup of tea, you’re going to focus your attention in what your five senses tell you about that experience. It can help to even set a timer.
Being in the shower is another great place to practice mindfulness. Or mindfully patting a dog or a pet and noticing the feel of their fur on your hands can be a nice starting point.
There’s also a book called The Miracle of Mindfulness by Buddhist monk and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Thich Nhat Hanh, which is great place to start.
How does practicing mindfulness make you feel?
It is so amazing when you actually do it. It’s a completely different experience. You actually become present with what is happening.
We spend most of our lives on autopilot or scattered or scrolling. This is a direct, deliberate antidote to that scattering of the mind.
Common misconceptions about mindfulness
The point of mindfulness is not to relax. Relaxation strategies are really important, but they are quite different.
The point of mindfulness is to become aware of the present moment. Sometimes that can be very uncomfortable. Sometimes it’s distressing, there’s a sense of unease and it’s not a place we want to be, which is why so often we get involved in our distraction strategies.
However, we know that if we can bring awareness to the present moment, it is in the present moment that we have access to our own resources and our own vitality. Where energy actually resides is in the present moment, and we’re not actually in the present moment if we’re not paying attention to it.
Mindfulness and lockdowns
Under lockdown, you may notice thoughts like, “I wish this wasn’t happening,” or “When is this going to end?” There may be feelings of unease or frustration, or all sorts of thoughts and judgements arising.
What we want to do is 1) to observe those thoughts as judgements and 2) to return again and again to the anchor, whether it’s the breath or the cup of tea in the earlier examples.
What arises from that suspension of judgement is that we often notice how much we judge. The noticing is like watching a train go by, rather than jumping on the train.
What you’ll establish is a kind or refuge and a different vantage point. It’s the “observer self”, who can watch these thoughts without being engulfed in them. It creates some room and spaciousness that enables us to make different choices around those thoughts and feelings.
Mindfulness and Clinical Psychology
Clinical psychology draws on an ancient tradition – mindfulness actually pre-dates Buddhism. All of the techniques I’ve described have actually been around for more than 2500 years!
Mindfulness also has become a huge part of Clinical Psychology since the 1970s. For example, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is all about being able to be in contact with the present moment and to do what matters, and to engage in valued actions in the presence or absence of painful thoughts and feelings. In other words, it’s all about mindfulness.
There’s an enormous amount of clinical research on the benefits of mindfulness in terms of reducing rumination, unpleasant or painful emotions, anxiety, reactivity, depression symptoms and increasing wellbeing in relationships. And importantly, while the practice of mindfulness can certainly help reduce painful internal experiences, it is not ultimately the point of this practice. What mindfulness enables you to do is to have these experiences without struggling with them, or in other words, to experience pain without suffering.
If you see a psychologist, they may well talk to you about the role mindfulness might play in in the treatment of depression or anxiety symptoms. Because learning a mindfulness-based practice can be such a profound way of shifting a person’s relationship to their thoughts and feelings, it’s often a key intervention tool in my own work with clients. Importantly, I like to make sure that clients have an experience with the actual practice of mindfulness in session, so that they can observe its effects and then determine for themselves whether it is something that they want to pursue further.
The ability to observe the mind, increase awareness and be present just results in improvements across so many domains of a person’s life.
About Dr Nina Puren
Dr Nina Puren has a PhD in English and a Master of Psychology (Clinical). She consults as a Clinical Psychology Registrar at Bluff Road Psychology three days per week. She has provided both individual and group-based therapies in public and private hospitals, community mental health clinics, nursing homes and rehabilitation settings. She has a long-standing personal and professional interest in mindfulness.