There is a new buzzword flying around in the mental health community at the moment. That buzzword is Mindfulness. Everyone is raving about it (and rightly so!)
But far from being a new technique, mindfulness has been in practise for millennia under various guises. Mindfulness is merely a modern form of meditation. Mindfulness dispenses with the religious and spiritual connotations associated with meditation. Although its principles are based on Buddhist meditation, it is a purely secular meditation technique. This suits many people in the modern world, who are uncomfortable with religious and spiritual philosophies.
At the core of mindfulness are the following precepts:
- Being completely aware of the present moment
- Not allowing thoughts to distract you from the present moment
Starting with a few minutes of mindfulness meditation per day, the idea is to increase this and then to apply the techniques you use in the meditation practice to everyday life. The hope is to change the way you view life and carry it out.
Let’s take a look at the following diagram:
The present moment is infinitesimally small, but for all practical purposes let’s consider it to be “right now plus the next few seconds” The past and the future are huge parts of our life compared with the present moment (unless you are just a few seconds away from dying!). Our minds correspondingly come up with a huge number of thoughts concerning what has happened in the past, what might have happened in the past if things had been different, and what may happen in the future. Very rarely, are we completely aware of “the now”. This is what mindfulness is all about. Being aware of “the now” and not allowing our thoughts about past and possible future events to dominate. It is actually very difficult to do this and it requires a lot of practice. It is easier to do this in a state of deep relaxation, which is where mindfulness meditation comes in.
Another aspect of mindfulness, is to gently accept your thoughts and feelings, but to recognise they are just thoughts and feelings. One of the axioms of mindfulness is: You are not your thoughts. You have thoughts and feelings, but these do not have to define who you are. Thoughts are just interpretations of how we perceive things, and feelings are emotions arising from those thoughts. Let’s take an example:
You are in town, and you see a friend on the other side of the street. You both wave to her, but she does not wave back and continues walking on her side of the street. You may think you have upset her in some way and she has decided to ignore you. This thought may occupy you for the rest of the day. You may feel agitated, angry, upset. But it could also be that she simply did not see you, because her mind was somewhere else. Let’s assume this was actually the case. So your thought about her ignoring you does not reflect reality at all. Your interpretation, or perception of what has happened has been totally distorted.
Thoughts are not reality, they are your interpretations of events.
So it is clear that it can be unhealthy to let yourself get wrapped in thoughts and allow them dominate the way you feel. So just accepting them as thoughts (that may have varying degrees of accuracy in representing events) is clearly a healthy thing to do.
Mindfulness is an extremely powerful technique to help you cope with the depression and anxiety if you are presently suffering from it, or preventing it from occurring if you are not presently suffering. It can also help change the way you lead your life generally, helping you to become a more relaxed, and balanced human being. Alongside CBT, mindfulness has become one of the main psychotherapies recognised, promoted and prescribed by mainstream health institutions such as the NHS.