Five Things We're Getting Wrong When It Comes To Mindfulness
We train our bodies to keep fit, says Juliette Sivertsen, so why shouldn't we train our minds to keep them healthy too?
Mindfulness has been hailed as a remedy to all sorts of ailments and challenges, such as reducing stress and improving sleep, increasing resilience and even recovery from mental distress such as depression and anxiety.
But sometimes it's hard to know fact from fiction and whether a new healthcare trend is worth pursuing or a load of hogwash. Somewhere along the way, mindfulness has been hijacked by the aesthetically pleasing #selfcare movement next to images of bubble baths and candles and other indulgent activities.
So what is - and isn't - mindfulness?
Grant Rix of The Mindfulness Education Group says mindfulness means noticing what is happening, with kindness and interest.
"People usually think that mindfulness involves learning to sit like a pretzel and trying to empty your mind of all thoughts. But it's not like that at all," says Rix.
"Mindfulness is about sharpening our ability to better regulate our attention, which involves three essential steps: knowing where our attention is, knowing where it needs to be and redirecting it back to where it needs to be."
Mindfulness is not about zoning out
In fact, it's the total opposite. It's about zoning in. The language often associated with mindfulness can lead people to thinking it's some form of extended silent meditation, sitting cross-legged and attempting to reach some kind of trance-like state.
Mindfulness can be like this for some people. But the concept is about paying attention to details, sounds, feelings and thoughts, rather than ignoring them.
"You’ll never empty your mind - it's not possible," says Rix. "We do learn to get a break from intrusive thoughts though, at which point awareness fills up with everything else we've been missing because of the incessant mental chatter that has now calmed — a greater awareness of the body, the sound of that bird, the light on the hills, hearing what our partner/kids/friends said to us the first time around."
You don't have to sit still in silence to do mindfulness
Rix says many people tend to think that it is just a relaxation technique but that's not entirely true. "Good mindfulness practice is relaxing but that's only half of it. It's also about alertness — feeling awake, alive, present and available. You could say that mindfulness is a healthy balance of feeling relaxed and alert."
Mindfulness might be more active for some people, such as walking through the park and observing all the details in your surroundings. Or being aware of all the different noises while on a crowded bus during peak-hour traffic.
It doesn't have to take long
A good mindfulness exercise to start with is a one-minute body scan, bringing awareness to all the different limbs and parts of your body, starting perhaps at your feet and working your way up to your eyes, ears and mouth.
From that point, you can build and work your way up to 10, 20 or even 30-minute practices. But the key is to work your way up. Start small and achievable, to keep it accessible and easy to commit to a regular practice. Most people find they can eventually easily find the time for their practice once it's become a regular habit.
Mindfulness doesn't conflict with religious beliefs
Mindfulness doesn't take anything away from your religious beliefs. If anything it can enhance your own faith journey by making you more aware of your own emotional responses, actions and how they might affect others.
"The other part to mindfulness is about enhancing our capacity for kindness, being a little less judgmental of ourselves and others, strengthening curiosity," says Rix.
"Essentially, fostering the best qualities of the human heart. So overall, mindfulness is the practice of strengthening kind-hearted attentiveness to whatever is occurring in our lives at any given moment."
Mindfulness is not a pathway to happiness
However, it will teach you how to sit with the uncomfortable, horrid moments, which leads to acceptance and a form of contentment can ensue.
"Probably the strongest evidence for the benefits of mindfulness is its power to reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety and for relieving stress," says Rix.
Mindfulness practice can’t prevent sadness or block out negative emotions but it can teach resilience. Regular mindfulness practice may not prevent you from being pulled into a vortex of stress but you will be able to pull yourself out of it faster than someone with less resilience.
"Mindfulness practice is the intentional training of these capacities so that it becomes increasingly effortless to sustain attention, switch attention between tasks, let go of unhelpful thoughts, manage our emotions more effectively and be a little kinder with ourselves and others."