What is mindfulness and what can it do for you?
A word that simply means awareness. It’s direct, intuitive knowing of what you are doing while you are doing it. It’s knowing what’s going on inside your mind and body, and what’s going on in the outside world as wellBlayne Pereira
What is it? Like many buzzwords, it can be difficult to pinpoint an exact (and concise) definition for ‘mindfulness’.
Professor Mark Williams of the University of Oxford, one of the world’s leading researchers in the field, has given a comprehensive description of mindfulness.
“It is a translation of a word that simply means awareness,” he says. “It’s direct, intuitive knowing of what you are doing while you are doing it. It’s knowing what’s going on inside your mind and body, and what’s going on in the outside world as well. Most of the time our attention is not where we intend it to be.
“Our attention is hijacked by our thoughts and emotions, by our concerns and desires, by our hopes or worries for the future, and our memories and regrets from the past. Mindful awareness is about learning to pay attention, in the present moment, and without judgement. It’s like training a muscle – training attention to be where you want it to be.”
So, in layman’s terms, we’ve established mindfulness is very much a ‘lose yourself in the moment and fully immerse and appreciate your surroundings’ method of approaching life. However, on the other side of the coin, there’s the whole ‘carpe diem’ philosophy: ‘seize the day! Go out and see the world and go skydiving rather than just reading about it and watching it on television’.
Surely mindfulness is a fancy way of missing out on life when you could be doing something? Wrong.
“Nothing about mindfulness is intrinsically passive,” says professor Willem Kuyken, director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre (OMC). “Everyone can train their mind; in the same way people spend time, money and energy at a gym training their body. Mindfulness is that training; it is not just simply ‘doing nothing’. It is much more.”
So mindfulness is when you have trained your mind to a state of responsiveness? Whereas the non-mindful mind acts on impulse, in a state of reactivity?
“That’s absolutely it,” affirms Kuyken, who is also a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Oxford.
So while the definition of mindfulness can be narrowed down into one sentence, achieving it still seems like a mammoth task.
“There is often an assumption that meditation is something you do to relax, that’s a slightly westernised, commoditised version,” says Rolf Hind, composer and pianist, and a research fellow at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. “It’s similar to yoga; the original intent was a deeply spiritual one, to find out what’s true, to be with yourself to find out how things work.” Hind is masterminding a Mindfulness Opera (see box).
Mindfulness in its purest form can trace its roots back to Buddhism. Meditation is a way of life for Buddhists and neurological research has demonstrated how practising Buddhists have significantly lower stress levels.
Hind believes mindfulness has found its niche in the western world because, unlike the word ‘meditate’, it is not religiously loaded.
“Mindfulness has become a secular term where it’s used in all sorts of different guises,” he says. “It’s separated from its religious roots.”
Hind accepts this democratisation of the practice, embraces it even.
“Why shouldn’t people do what they want with it?” he asks. “It’s not like when yoga proliferated, and its traditional users became all sniffy at the latecomers.”
So how far can it go? Even Westminster is keeping tabs on the burgeoning concept, publishing its interim report earlier this year.
“We find that mindfulness is a transformative practice, leading to a deeper understanding of how to respond to situations wisely,” the unlikely – but very real – Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) said after its eight-month inquiry into the potential for mindfulness training in key areas of public life – health, education, workplaces and the criminal justice system.
“We believe that government should widen access to mindfulness training in key public services, where it has the potential to be an effective low-cost intervention with a wide range of benefits. We urge all political parties to consider our recommendations for inclusion in their manifestos for the 2015 General Election, as part of the pressing task of tackling the country’s mental health crisis.”
The OMC is part of The Mindfulness Initiative, a coalition of Oxford, Exeter and Bangor Universities that seeks to highlight the benefits of mindfulness as a low-cost intervention and demonstrate its potential in a range of public services.
And the group supports the Mindfulness APPG.
“We would like to see mindfulness for recurrent depression in every NHS trust,” says Kuyken, re-affirming his statement that “everyone wants to train their mind”. He believes the techniques would be particularly useful for people who are frequently angry or aggressive.
Google and eBay are among several leading global organisations to have introduced mindfulness measures into the workplace environment, as has Transport for London. It has been proven to reduce stress levels, which crucially lowers the amount of days lost due to sickness for employers.
And, while even Professor Kuyken accepts the practice is not for everyone, given it’s relatively low cost (which can feasibly be zero), giving it a whirl is usually a cheap experiment.
Illustration courtesy of Neil Stevens