Mindfulness, the most scientifically investigated form of meditation, has been the subject of a huge growth of interest in clinical and scientific circles in recent years. The evidence is suggesting that learning to pay attention may be the most important skill we ever learn.
Mindfulness, in its simplest and most universal sense, is a mental discipline that involves training attention. It teaches us how to use the mind in a different way and to focus on the things that are most useful and helpful in our lives thus helping us to live more consciously and fully.
The importance of attention and the cost of inattention
When our mind is wandering we are not paying attention to what we are doing. This results in more mistakes, less efficiency, and less enjoyment. When we are not paying attention our mind may get up to ‘mischief’ in the form of worry and rumination which are at the very heart of anxiety and depression.
Mindfulness and the ‘fight-or-flight’ response
When we are not paying attention we often make mountains out of mole-hills and perceive stressors that don’t even exist, except in our imaginations. This amplifies our level of stress enormously which takes a toll on our mental and physical health.
The ’fight or flight response’ is a natural, necessary and appropriate response to a threatening situation if it is based on a clearly perceived actual threat – say confronting a tiger.
This turbo-charge of energy is coded into our systems by nature in order to preserve life. It is appropriate and life protecting, however that’s providing it is only turned on when it needs to be and it is allowed to turn off when no longer needed and is not prolonged.
When we activate it inappropriately we experience it as anxiety; these chemicals and changes are being switched on with nowhere to go. This takes its toll over time including producing allostatic load which is like a physiological wear-and-tear on the body. High allostatic load, among other things, leads to increased inflammation and progression of chronic illnesses.
The good news is that these effects can all be reversed over time with the regular practice of mindfulness meditation. The focusing of attention on the here and now helps us to see which stressors are actually present and which ones are only in our imagination.
Applications of mindfulness
The list of applications of mindfulness/meditation for healthcare and personal development grows every year. The research into preventing relapse in depression has probably caused more interest than any other single application. Some of the benefits of mindfulness-based meditation found in research are listed below:
- mental health: eg therapeutic application for depression, anxiety, panic disorder, stress, emotional regulation, addiction, sleep problems, eating disorders, psychosis, ADHD, autism, reduced burnout, greater resilience
- neuroscience: eg structural and functional changes in the brain, stimulation of neurogenesis (the process by which neurons or nerve cells are generated in the brain), possible prevention of dementia and cognitive decline, down-regulating the amygdala, improved executive functioning and working memory, reduced default mental activity, improved self-monitoring and cognitive control, improved perception of sensory input
- clinical: eg therapeutic applications for pain management, symptom control, coping with chronic illness (eg cancer and MS), metabolic and hormonal benefits (eg reduced allostatic load, cortisol), facilitating lifestyle change (eg weight management, smoking cessation), improved immunity (eg improved resistance, reduced inflammation), improved genetic function and repair, slower ageing as measured by telomeres (the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes that affect how quickly cells age)
- performance: eg sport, academic, leadership qualities, mental flexibility and problem solving, decision-making, sunk-cost bias
- education: eg improved problem-solving, executive functioning and working memory, better focus, less behavioural problems, fostering growth mindsets
- relationships: eg greater emotional intelligence and empathy, improved communication, reduced vicarious stress and carer burnout
- Spiritual: although it seems like a modern discovery, the world's great wisdom traditions have understood the importance of awareness for millennia
Mindfulness and depression
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) combines the insights and attitudes gained through meditative practices and the cultivation of mindfulness in daily life. It emphasises the ability to stand back from and be less attached to the thinking mind, to be more accepting and self-compassionate, and to be present and free of worry about the future and rumination on the past.
MBCT more than halves the relapse rate for people who have had depression in the past by changing relationships to negative thoughts and emotions rather than by changing belief in thought content. We don’t so much have to control negative thoughts and emotions, but we don’t have to be controlled by them either. We can learn to stand back from them without being reactive or judgmental.
Meditation and ageing
Work by the team led by Australia’s Nobel Prize winning researcher, Elizabeth Blackburn, has found that meditation may slow genetic ageing and enhance genetic repair.
Mindfulness meditation has been found to be associated with a significant reduction in pain, fatigue, and sleeplessness, but improved functioning, mood and general health for people with chronic pain syndromes.
Mindfulness and immunity
For people with chronic illnesses there are significant improvements seen in overall quality of life, symptoms of stress, and sleep quality, immunity and lower levels of the inflammatory hormones.
Mindfulness is more than learning to pay attention – it also implies cultivating an attitude of openness, interest and acceptance. It is a form of meditation and a way of living.
When we fight with the thoughts and feelings we would rather not be having, we actually feed them with more attention, and increase the impact that they have. Learning to notice them and be non-reactive and non-judgmental of them is an important aspect of learning to be free of them.
Most meditative techniques rely on the attention being focused restfully; hence the term ‘restful alertness.’ When first attempting this, some people feel frustrated and tense as they cannot stop their mind from thinking. However in order to meditate you don’t need to struggle with the distracting stream of circular, habitual, repetitive and imaginary mental activity. You need to learn not to be so reactive to it. This takes the emotive force out of it.
Formal mindfulness practice
A day is just like a book. If it isn’t punctuated it becomes a blur and makes little sense. These ‘punctuation marks’ are times of consciously coming to rest so that we can remind ourselves to be present and pay attention. For this reason the two following practices are suggested.
The ‘full stop’ could be practiced anything from 5 to 30 minutes twice a day depending on your motivation and opportunity, and the ‘comma’ for 15 seconds to 2 minutes as often as you remember throughout the day. The comma is particularly useful in the time you have after completing one activity and before beginning another.
Informal mindfulness practice
There is no point being mindful for 10 or 20 minutes sitting in a meditation chair. The aim is to get out of the chair and be more mindful throughout the day whether eating, walking, talking, driving a car or doing the dishes. Pay attention by connecting with the senses and be present to what is happening as your day and your life unfolds before you.
Creating Mindful Melbourne
Melbourne is already a world leader in the integration of mindfulness into professional, educational and health settings. There is a case for mindfulness to be seen as the single most important life-skill we ever develop and as such there are many ways we can integrate it further.
- Firstly, learning is almost impossible without being able to engage a child's attention and so mindfulness can be successfully integrated into school and university curricula. It would be great to see mindfulness as a core part of the educational experience of students in this great state of Victoria and city of Melbourne. Furthermore, the most important way for a parent or teacher to teach mindfulness to a child is by modeling it, that means being mindful with the child, not multitasking and paying attention when communicating with them.
- Secondly, workplaces can be mindfulness friendly by developing policies and practices that reduce multitasking and help people to sustain focus at work. If we are wise we will see that taking a few minutes during a busy work day to 'sharpen our saw' by sharpening our attention through mindfulness can save a huge amount of wasted energy and time through inattention and distraction. Workplaces can also provide training in mindfulness to personnel as well as listing it as a desirable attribute for new employees.
- Thirdly, the city can create quiet and beautiful contemplative spaces that give people the opportunity to stop, consciously rest, refuel and then reengage with life. Melbourne's beautiful parks and cathedrals are already examples of quiet spaces but we could do more to create contemplative places.
- Fourthly, the city could help create further user-friendly mindfulness resources and provide greater awareness and easy access to the fantastic homegrown mindfulness resources that are already out there.
- Fifthly, it would not be difficult to create campaigns to promote mindfulness and give mindful reminders. We need it now more than ever as the pace and distraction of modern life escalates.
These are just some of my ideas, but what are yours? How do you think we could create a Mindful Melbourne? Share your ideas with us.
To learn more on mindfulness check out FutureLearn - Mindfulness for Wellbeing and Peak Performance