My mind is a high-frequency radio stuck on one channel: “overdrive”. Friends convinced me that the only way to silence the commentator up top was to meditate. In particular, they recommended I try “mindfulness”, a simple breathing technique created by Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts.
“Mindfulness is about tuning in to what's going on in the present moment,” says psychiatrist and meditation practitioner Dr Elise Bialylew. “It’s about creating space from our fast and full lives, rather than being slaves to the automatic pilot. You note what’s happening physically, emotionally and psychologically so you can actually respond to things rather than ignoring, avoiding, denying or reacting to them.”
Meditation can change our minds
“In the past, especially in the ‘60s, meditation was perceived to be quite an esoteric, hippie-like thing to do,” explains Dr Bialylew. “Now it’s integrated into mainstream medicine. There’s strong evidence and scientific research that supports the benefits.”
Google “mindfulness” and hundreds of worldwide clinical studies pop up with proof of the positive effects of meditation. It helps depression, insomnia, anxiety, cancer, cardiovascular disease, chronic pain, addictions, eating disorders, weightloss and irritable bowel syndrome. It’s used in everything from the footy clubhouse to the classroom and the corporate boardroom – even as a way of bringing peace to people in warzones such as Afghanistan.
So strong is the power of meditation that it actually physically changes the brain. Eight weeks of Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program produces thickening in certain areas of our little grey cells, the regions that improve learning, memory, attention, decision making, self-awareness, compassion, empathy, forgiveness and stress. All this just by sitting still for 27 minutes a day.
How to practise mindfulness
Put simply, mindfulness means closing your eyes and focusing on your breathing, the sounds around you and the feelings inside – for example, a tingle in your toes or sadness in your heart. You can practise this sitting down, showering, washing the dishes or walking on the treadmill (eyes open, of course). The goal is not to “get somewhere”, but rather to be where you are. It’s not a form of relaxing, it’s an exercise in paying attention – something particularly challenging for those of us who are used to getting things done.
“In our culture of incessant doing, the idea of stopping and taking time to sit and do what seems like nothing is very difficult for a lot of people,” says Dr Bialylew. “You need a reason and a significant amount of motivation to do this, so most people come to meditation due to stress or because something’s not quite right.”
During my first 10-minute attempt, I freak myself out when I realise how mindless I actually am. The impulse to check my iPhone, to try and fix how I feel or change or distract myself from the here and now is torture at its best.
But it’s natural that the mind will wander. That really is the point. To notice when it does, to accept it, not judge it, then divert your attention back to your breath. The mind remains active whether we want it to or not, so when we get annoyed at our thoughts and try to stop them, the more fixated on them we become. Instead, it helped me to imagine that thoughts are like clouds drifting past in the sky, or leaves floating down a river. After a couple of seconds, they’re gone. The trick is to not engage with them.
There’s no right or wrong way to be mindful. It just means having a go. “Changing habits means starting small,” Dr Bialylew says. “There really is no excuse for not finding 10 minutes in a day to do something that will change your life.”
With this in mind, she created Mindful in May (mindfulinmay.com) – an annual campaign that encourages us to practise 10 minutes of mindfulness every day. During the month of May in 2012, the 850 participants – including corporate execs, entrepreneurs, retirees, mothers and their children – received online resources to help keep up motivation, in return for which they donated a small amount towards building water wells in Ethiopia and Nepal. Collectively they raised over $27,000.
“I know from personal experience just how hard it is to stick to a daily practice, especially when things get really, really busy,” says Dr Bialylew. “It can be easier to do it if you’re helping others or have support from others.”
There are plenty of regular meditation groups around that don’t require you to wave incense or sit on a hill, and there are plenty of free downloads from sites like freemindfulness.org. But never look past the opportunity to go for a swim and feel the coolness of the water, or walk the dog in the park and listen to the wind.
How mindfulness is helping others
You know the tantrums. You’ve seen the tears. Life can be stressful for toddlers, tweens and teens. That’s why mindfulness is now core curriculum at hundreds of Australian schools and colleges, like Yarra Oaks Primary School and Geelong Grammar in Victoria, where the program is taught by Janet Etty-Leal and evaluated by the country’s top universities.
Others, like the Methodist Ladies’ College, use the practice to help students focus during Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) study and exams. Not only does it help with concentration and anxiety – crucial for kids distracted by our digital world – but also boredom and bullying. Even actress Goldie Hawn runs mindfulness education in American schools (thehawnfoundation.org).
As for me? I’m working harder in the gym; I’ve let go of a past relationship. Friends have asked me “what I’m on”. My concentration and clarity have improved. My body and mind feel like they’re finally on the same harmonic wavelength. Best of all, there’s a big smile on my dial and a sweet melody within.
Get a taste of mindfulness with this exercise from Jon Kabat-Zinn.
- Sit in a chair with a raisin in your hand.
- Examine the raisin like it’s new.
- Imagine it growing on a vine.
- Notice its shape, texture, colour and size.
- Smell the raisin; imagine its taste.
- Place the raisin in your mouth.
- Chew the raisin three times then stop.
- Describe the raisin’s flavour.
- Swallow the raisin, noticing how it feels.
- Sit quietly, aware of what you feel.