mindfulness: mirage or miracle?

Following on from my post about flow last week [Total immersion: getting into flow], having considered and experienced some of the benefits of getting into the “zone”, it seemed logical to find out more about mindfulness generally.

A concept I’ve come across a lot since I started this blog is that often our stress, anger, unhappiness and other negative emotions are caused not by our objective reality, but by how we (re) construct reality and then react to that construction.

Although our constructions are sometimes way off target, we can mistake them for reality and respond accordingly.

As someone who is more than capable of sticking to an interpretation which flies in the face of reality (anyone else ever driven on the wrong side of a two lane French highway and got angry with the drivers coming at them who had obviously got it wrong?), I need solutions.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  What exactly is mindfulness?  Jon Kabat-Zinn (who created the research-backed stress-reduction program Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)) has described it as “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment”.

Essentially, mindfulness is a way of staying focused on what’s real and concrete instead of getting wrapped up in distorted interpretations of reality and getting angry, stressed, and generally upset by them.

According to its advocates, mindfulness can actually help us avoid being ambushed by distorted thinking.  By allowing us to take a step back, mindfulness puts space between ourselves and our reactions and breaks down our conditioned responses. Fully present, we can take our time to consider the situation calmly.

This already sounds pretty good, but claimed concrete benefits include:

  • stress reduction
  • less emotional reactivity
  • fewer depressive symptoms
  • decrease in anxiety
  • reduced rumination
  • enhanced self-insight and self-compassion
  • greater empathy
  • the ability to be fully present with others
  • improved working memory
  • better concentration and focus
  • more cognitive flexibility
  • lower incidence of burnout
  • better quality of life.

Now I’m wondering why I’ve waited so long to take mindfulness seriously.  I think one reason is I’ve always told myself I don’t have time to fit this “one more thing” into my life. Another reason is that it sounds too good to be true.

But the benefits of mindfulness are backed up by plenty of research.  Here is an excellent article that pulls together benefits and research references in one place: positivepsychologyprogram.com.

OK – I’m convinced mindfulness would be a positive force in my life. What do I do now?

Several disciplines and practices are recommended for cultivating mindfulness, such as yoga, tai chi and qigong, with the most common way of developing it being mindfulness meditation.  If these sound like big undertakings, it’s possible to start by doing ordinary things mindfully.

For example amongst Karen Young’s 13 different ways to practice mindfulness she includes washing the dishes, taking a shower, eating and taking a walk – things we usually do automatically, without thinking about them.  The way to do them mindfully, she says, is to focus on our senses and to be aware of our thoughts and feelings in each moment, giving our full attention to them. [read more at heysigmund.com]

The many potential benefits look as though they amply justify the time investment.  In fact Young describes mindfulness as “dose-related”: the more you do it the more you benefit.  I may even be prepared to get up 30 minutes earlier for something that could reduce my stress, make me less emotionally reactive and help me focus better on what matters…

Tai chi on the beach anyone?








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  • Mmmm. Maybe. I think there are two separate strands in your post. The first is about mindfulness in the sense of living in the moment and fully appreciating your surroundings and as a way of minimising stress which I get.

    I am not so sure though that mindfulness necessarily helps in the situation you describe where we find ourselves in a negative situation because of the way we react to a stressful situation. I think it is really hard where you are personally – and emotionally – involved in a difficult situation to take a step back because you are no longer objective. Maybe mindfulness is more an insurance policy or a preventative measure rather than a solution?

    • I think you’re absolutely right Lorraine in the sense that, as mindfulness novices, trying to change our reactions in stressful situations would be like Canute trying to hold back the tide! The point as I understand it would be to train ourselves to observe and better understand our thoughts and emotions (and thereby to react differently to difficult situations) through regular mindfulness practice. I didn’t mean to suggest it would be a quick fix!

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