Mindfulness: Q&A

‘Mindfulness’ is very much the buzzword going around at the moment. When it comes to wellbeing and good mental health, it is probably the one single thing that is getting the most press coverage.

Here are a few of the commonly asked questions, and the key information that you need to know; by the end, you’ll be able to make your own mind up (no pun intended) as to whether mindfulness might be something that you wish to try, if you have not already done so.

Q: So what actually is mindfulness?

A: Mindfulness is a fairly simple form of meditation, which was little known to the Western world until recently. Many consider mindfulness to have its origins from Buddhism, however mindful practices have been adopted for hundreds and even thousands of years by many other peoples — including Hindus and Christians.

Q: What does mindfulness do?

A: In short, it teaches us to pay attention to there here and now (i.e. the present moment) without any judgement.

Taking an extract from the blurb of Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world, “Mindfulness reveals a set of simple yet powerful practices that you can incorporate into daily life to help break the cycle of anxiety, stress, unhappiness and exhaustion. It helps promote a genuine joie de vivre; the kind of happiness that gets into your bones and allows you to meet the worst that life throws at you with new courage.

Mindfulness is based on mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT)…and is as effective as drugs for preventing depression. But, more importantly, it also works for the rest of us who aren’t depressed but who are struggling to keep up with the constant demands of the modern world.”

The above is spot on.

Q: Wow, sounds like powerful stuff. But what the hell does “being in the present moment” even mean?

A: It is pretty powerful stuff — check out how Mindfulness Can Literally Change Your Brain.

OK, so this ‘being in the present moment’ — ultimately, it helps us to become more aware of our thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations. We come to just notice them ‘as they are’, and realise that our thoughts just come and go of their own accord — we have a choice as to whether we act upon them or not. i.e. We realise that we don’t have to act on them; with unhappiness/anger/stress, instead of taking any of these emotions personally and getting ourselves into a negative-thought-downward-spiral, we can treat these thoughts as black clouds and just let them drift past.

Q: OK, that kinda makes sense…

A: It only makes real, tangible sense when you give it a try. Trust me, it’s really good stuff!

Q: So you do it then, or ‘practice it, or whatever it’s called?

A: I sure do.

Q: How does it work then — how often do you do it?

A: That’s two questions there, buddy, let’s go for one at a time… But right now I try to do 15 minutes in the morning, and 15minutes in the evening.

When I first started, I just did 10 minutes a day; the Headspace App (more below) gives you a free 10-day trial, 10 minutes each day.

To my surprise, I started to find that doing mindfulness made me feel better than I did listening to music before work, to start the day. It gave me a clearer and more relaxed mind. Equally, some evenings I do it just before bedtime, when it helps to clear the head and relax you before sleep. I’ve even drifted off whilst doing it! I know people who actively use it as part of their bedtime routines. When I might struggle to get off to sleep, I lie there in bed and do simple meditations like just focusing on the breath. Works a treat.

Q: Where do you do it?

A: Some place alone and reasonably quiet, if not completely. Recently, with the weather as it has been, I’ve been doing it outside in the garden or the park — the outdoors is my all-time favourite place for it.

When I was commuting into the City and back, I would do it in the morning on the train going in, and then later in the evening on the train back home. It wasn’t as ideal as doing it in solitude, and also with the moving train, but I used to just close my eyes and listen to the exercises on my mobile with headphones, and it wasn’t too bad at all.

Q: On the train?! With people?!

A: I’ll let you off for the double-question that time, but yeah! Have you been on a London train…folks don’t say a word! It’s pretty much quiet most of the time. Until a really angry guy gets on and asks people to move down the carriage… we’re a social bunch on the trains. Also, my trains were overground from Waterloo, and they’re way more comfortable than the Underground ones.

Q: Shouldn’t we be talking about mindfulness rather than trains?

A: Probably.

Q: Cool. So back to the topic, I’m a bit surprised — you don’t need to sit on a mat cross-legged on the floor?

A: Not at all! You can if you want by all means, and some people do, but you can just as well sit on a chair, train seat, etcetera.

Q: Good to know! What got you into mindfulness in the first place?

A: Well I’d seen it in the news and had read about Andy Puddicombe and his Headspace app (more here and below), and I just wanted to see what it was all about. This was towards the beginning of this year…I’m very glad that I gave it a go!

Q: Has it changed your life?

A: I note the sarcastic tone, but actually yes it has. I noticed changes from early on — even in the first few day using the app. I gradually felt myself consciously trying (and succeeding more and more) to be in the moment, throughout my day — and not only when I was sat down listening to the guided mindfulness exercises.

It really is an amazing feeling to be in control of your emotions and just generally less stressed out. It definitely helped me a lot at work too; I used to struggle with the volume of tasks I had to do, and the nature of my job meant that my task list would change unpredictably. I used to work very ineffectively and inefficiently, trying to do everything all at once; mindfulness definitely helped me to step back and relax mentally, working on the tasks one by one and with a clearer mind.

Q: OK, OK. So I should give it a try?

A: 100% yes!

Q: Do you think mindfulness is for everyone?

A: Yes again! I genuinely believe that mindfulness has benefits for anyone and everyone, from all walks of life. Ruby Wax (remember her?) has a new book coming out where she’ll be talking about mindfulness for babies, kids and teenagers. Scientific research is continuing to show the broad benefits of mindfulness for all audiences.

With our increasingly busy and stressful lives, and not least with our eyes fixated on endless digital screens and pop-up notifications, us Londoners probably need mindfulness more than anyone. City workers — banks, lawyers, sales people, etcetera — this means you! (I was once there, I know…)

Q: OK man, I’m sold, say no more! How do I get started?

A: I would go with one of 2 options. I did the 10-day free trial with the Headspace app; this has featured widely in the press, and is Andy Puddicombe’s baby, who I mentioned earlier. Andy has an interesting story, I suggest you look him up (start by reading the earlier link). I have since paid just over £40 for a year-long subscription, with a year’s worth of guided exercises (i.e. Day 11 and onwards, plus lots of extra meditations geared towards other areas such as Health, Relationships, and so on). Headspace should be available on the vast majority of devices — it’s on Apple and Android, I even have it on my BlackBerry!

(There are also other Mindfulness apps too, all slightly different so I encourage you to explore and see which you might like best — for example, ‘Calm’ and ‘Buddhify’).

The second option would be to buy Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world, by Professor Mark Williams (Oxford University) and Danny Penman. It’s a great book with some great introductory content, plus an 8-week MBCT programme; there is an accompanying CD with guided meditations also.

If you really want to get into it, there are places which offer courses, and even degrees, in Mindfulness! Do be careful, however — I would go with a University-led course. (For example, one of the ones offered by Oxford University, which was the pioneer in the UK — Professor Mark Williams played a big part in this).

Q: Awesome, thanks! I think I’ll start with the trial on the Headspace app and buy the Minfdulness book also, and see which I prefer. I’ll let you know how I get on…

A: Sounds like a plan! Please do.

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