Mindfulness is popular right now. In the UK, members of parliament have classes in mindfulness. Mindfulness was even on the front of an international issue of Time Magazine recently, titled ‘The Mindful Revolution’. How did mindfulness get so ‘in’, and why right now? Mindfulness expert and author of Mindfulness for Dummies, Shamash Alidina, explains.
The history of mindfulness goes back at least 2,500 years, if not more. Mindfulness is about cultivating a present moment awareness, and this is part of most eastern and some western traditions. Most notably, mindfulness has featured as an integral part of Buddhist practice. In fact, the word Buddha means ‘the awakened one’. The state of wakefulness that you may normally be in is considered to be like a half-awake state.
So what’s with all the hype right now? I think the popularity of mindfulness is due to several factors. The first is the science. Since around the late seventies, researchers like Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn who developed a program called Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction, began to publish more and more papers on the effects of mindfulness. Scientists found mindfulness reduced chronic pain, anxiety, stress, depression and psoriasis. They discovered mindfulness increased resilience, boosted immune function, heightened focus and developed greater emotional intelligence.
The number of papers on mindfulness doubled each year as more and more positive findings were discovered. And although it takes many years of deep scientific research before you can be highly confident that an intervention is effective, all the signs so far are amazingly encouraging for mindfulness. The National Institute of Health in the US has already invested millions of dollars in the research. Mindfulness is not snake oil.
Okay, you may say, so science seems to think it’s good stuff. But science says eating broccoli is good stuff too – that’s not on the front of Time Magazine.
There’s another big reason why mindfulness is popular: the distracted, fast pace of modern life. With mobile phones, iPads and Kindles everywhere, we can always be doing something, and the way the technology is designed, it’s extremely addictive. Any technology that’s not addictive doesn’t sell, so we all end up with devices that are so enticing, we’re glued to them. The majority of users pick up their phone around 1,500 times each week! This constant connectivity throws us into a puddle of digital distraction. And with that distraction comes a feeling of inefficiency, dissatisfaction and stress.
Mindfulness offers a welcome relief. Something you can ‘do’, that gives you permission to stop doing anything. To feel your body, your breath, to listen to the sound of the wind, to go for a walk and enjoy nature. It can be such a relief that more and more people are compelled to mindfulness.
Mindfulness has always been accessible in Buddhist temples. And if you consider mindfulness being synonymous with meditation, then it was also accessible in Hindu temples and through practises like Tai Chi, Qigong or Yoga.
So why the big deal now? I think the final piece in the jigsaw is the secularisation of mindfulness.
Once mindfulness became part of programs like Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction, it wasn’t religious as such, and it invited everyone to try the method. It can be as simple as noticing the taste of your food, the feeling of breathing or the smile on your face. Present moment awareness isn’t Buddhist due to Buddha’s discoveries, just like gravity isn’t Italian due to Galileo’s discoveries.
Mindfulness is universal and for humanity as a whole. And now many people accept this as making reasonable sense.
Yoga has grown like wild fire in the last ten years or so. One study found over 20 million people in the US practice yoga regularly – that’s almost 10% of the population there. I think mindfulness is going in the same direction, and for similar reasons. The practice is secular, open and available for all to learn. In fact many mindfulness classes include some yoga practice. And I’m now finding yoga classes are including some mindfulness meditation. So they may grow together.
Mindfulness does have some differences over yoga, if you think of yoga as physical stretches (it’s actually much more than that). Mindfulness can be practised anytime, anywhere. Two spare minutes on the bus – feel your breathing in a mindful way. Walking home to the train station – do some mindful walking. Mindfulness is extremely portable in today’s busy lifestyle.
Reading about mindfulness and practising mindfulness are two different worlds. If you just read articles about mindfulness but never practice it, it’s a bit like going to a restaurant and just eating the menu! You’ll find eating the food far more tasty and satisfying. So I’m going to finish this article with a few ways you can have a go at practising mindfulness. Some are nice and easy, and others more challenging. See what appeals to you and have a go – but remember, try and make the exercise fun rather than putting too much effort in. Play with it!
Tips to build mindfulness into your day
- Look for green – The next time you go for walk, notice all the things that are coloured green. Trees, grass, weeds, cars. By doing this, you get yourself out of your busy mind and into the present moment. That’s what mindfulness is about – living in the here and now. If you don’t like green, whatever colour works for you!
- 10 breaths – Get into a nice, comfortable sitting posture. Close your eyes. Take a few moments to notice how your body feels, and get yourself even more comfortable if you can. Now each time to you breath in, say to yourself ‘one’. On your next out breath say ‘one’. On your next inbreath, say ‘two’. Next out breath ‘two’. And so on. All the way up to ten. Notice how you feel, having done that. And start again. Keep going for anywhere between 5-20 minutes.
- Letting go of past and future – Imagine you’re holding two really heavy suitcases. One represents your past, filling with your regrets and past experiences. The other represents your future, packed with your worries, plans and dreams. Imagine slowly lowering the bags to the ground – first the past, and then the future. Notice any feeling of lightness. Enjoy some time in this, experiencing living in the present moment. Give yourself a rest from the weight of past and future.
- Clear your mind weather – Imagine you’re looking at the sky. Watching the clouds pass by. Now each time you have a thought, imagine that thought is placed on a cloud. Watch the clouds go by. But also notice the space between the clouds – the moments of no thoughts. Focus your attention gently and kindly on those spaces between the clouds and enjoy any sense of peace or freedom you may experience. Listen to the silence between your thoughts.
- Do nothing for 10 minutes a day – Have you noticed how you’re always doing something? Well, here’s your invitation to do absolutely nothing. For 10 minutes or however long you can manage everyday, see if you can just sit there and just be. No email, no texting, no cleaning. No planning, no worrying, no fantasising. It’s a simple idea, but not quite as easy as it sounds. Your mind may start screaming at you at first, but persevere. Beyond that noise is a place of immense peace and calm and joy – and step by step it’ll come to you once you discover the pleasure of doing less and being more.
Shamash Alidina is one of the UK’s leading experts in mindfulness and has been helping people to manage stress using mindfulness for over 14 years. He is the Author of bestselling book Mindfulness For Dummies. In his latest book, The Mindful Way through Stress, Shamash offers a proven 8-week path to health, happiness and well-being using the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction approach.