Rain hammering on the windscreen, traffic at standstill, kids bickering in the back and the Frozen soundtrack stuck on repeat again – what better time for my phone to ‘ping’ to let me know it’s time to be mindful.
Just to clarify things a little, I am not a hippy, my children have never eaten organic quinoa and I am not at all eco friendly or spiritual – truth be known I’m rubbish at recycling and am cynical to a fault.
Chances are that either you, or someone you know has recently started the practice known as mindfulness. With roots in Buddhism and an array of handy downloadable apps to help you practice at leisure, mindfulness is a form of meditation focusing on ‘being in the now’ that has, in the space of a year or so, gone from being ‘another faddy craze for the eccentric, modern day hippies’ to a new and extremely popular ‘pseudo-religion’ across the UK, one that could have been tailor made for the west, it sits so well with our secular ideals.
Trying to find peace in a hectic, digitally dependent and often rushed world may just be a matter of thinking differently and, after a week of sessions, I’ve discovered that mindfulness may be the way forward.
It’s all about being in the present moment – being aware of your breathing, body and surroundings as well as emotions and thoughts. Mindfulness involves viewing both yourself and others with compassion and kindness, in a totally non-judgmental way. This is something that many of us struggle with, in a society where Kim Kardashian’s derriere makes the evening news and we are constantly bombarded with adverts and imagery telling us how to be thinner/taller/less wrinkled; being nonjudgmental of oneself is a refreshing, if not long overdue concept.
Being mindful is a way to cultivate a ‘less emotionally reactive awareness’ to thoughts and feelings, the inner self-talk many of us struggle with – or, as in my case, the constant chatter of a busy brain. Mastering mindfulness means learning to be aware of what’s happening without becoming overly preoccupied with any of it and the benefits have been well documented, backed up with scientific research following years of studies, mostly carried out in America.
Over in California many schools have embraced the mindfulness technique, with some very impressive outcomes.
Twice a week the children at an Oakland school have a mindfulness class – 15 minutes of calm each session, in what is otherwise a very busy schedule. The class begins with the sound of a Tibetan
singing bowl as the children close their eyes and focus on their breathing, guided to try and imagine ‘loving kindness’ in the playground. The results speak for themselves as teachers have reported an improvement in the behavior of many pupils, with less violent outbursts and an overall calmness for those that were struggling with anger issues.
So, what about here in the UK? Mindfulness classes are popping all everywhere and the NHS have even started to fund sessions for depression in some long-term sufferers, as an alternative to costly medicinal remedies and interventions that appear to be less than effective.
Military personnel, professional sportspeople and several prisons have already incorporated mindfulness in their regime so it may only be a matter of time before it makes its way into our classrooms, rather like yoga did a few years ago.
This can only be a good thing; the UK has seen a rise in the number of children being excluded from school due to behavioural and anger issues, anything that can address this at an early age and equip these children with the tools they need has to be a positive step, after all, prevention is always better than intervention, especially when it comes to kids behaviour.
Children that have received mindfulness training in America show greater compassion, more self-control and better behaviour overall so if we can help our children to slow down and take time to think, they can often discover that they actually have the answers within themselves. Parents and teachers tell children a hundred times a day to ‘pay attention’ – but are we expecting too much if we have never taught them the skills to be able to do this and spend most of our time over stimulated with no time to catch our breath?
Mindfulness education is like ‘talking yoga’, training for the brain and, while it shouldn’t be seen as a quick fix as it does take time to master, initial findings show that it can also help with other, more serious issues such as depression and self-harming behaviours like anorexia or bulimia.
Even the celebs have been getting involved in the mindfulness pandemic sweeping the nation, there’s an ‘all-party mindfulness group’ in Parliament which Ruby Wax helped launch and Madeleine Bunting from the Guardian newspaper has recently suggested it should be mandatory in all schools.
It may appear that mindfulness is a new thing but it was back in the 1980’s when the Dalai Lama first sparked a conversation about science and Buddhism that lead to the creation of The Mind and Soul
Institute, dedicated to studying contemplative science. In 2000 he launched a ‘new’ sub discipline of contemplative neuroscience called mindfulness, inviting scientists to study the brain activity of expert Buddhist meditators – defined as having more than 10,000 hours of practice. Now that is dedication.
These observations revealed that consistent mindfulness practice could actually cause physiological changes in the brain, even creating an increased volume of tissue in some areas and rewiring some brain circuits, producing positive effects on mind, brain and body. Ok, so it may take rather a lot of practice to achieve this level of enlightenment but it all sounds very positive – seems that science is finally confirming what the Buddhist monks have been trying to tell us for years.
If distraction is the pre-eminent condition of our digital age, then mindfulness is the most logical response and one of the major strengths lies in its universality – the ultimate goal is simply to give your attention fully to what you’re doing at any given moment.
There is no need for equipment or fancy work out gear, you just need to assume a comfortable position and relax, think Buddha, feel calm – and don’t forget to breathe.
Available to everyone regardless of gender, race, religious beliefs, culture or financial situation, mindfulness was previously unheard of by the west until fairly recently although its roots are firmly based on ancient Buddhist wisdom. Having said that, the practice is still as relevant today as it was back then, maybe more so, as we attempt to balance the daily demands modern day life presents us with.
One man who has realized the potential in disseminating mindfulness, and the ‘need’ for an app to facilitate it to the digital masses is Andy Puddicombe, inventor of the hugely successful Headspace.
The fortysomething former Buddhist monk from Bristol, who has a degree in circus arts, has, according to the New York Times, ‘done for mindfulness and meditation what Jamie Oliver has done for food’. This looks set to be an understatement as already, just 4 years after launching the digital health platform, he is worth around £25million with Headspace used by more than a million people in 150 countries.
The Headspace programme, dubbed ‘a gym for the brain’, offers guided meditation resources online which are also accessible through the downloadable app. The first ten days are free, after which users have the choice to either subscribe or continue with the free content, although to get the most from the app it needs to be followed daily, using the 365 sessions of audio content included in the subscription.
Techniques utilized by Headspace combine elements of both calming and insight meditation, to bring about ‘greater calm, clarity and improved feelings of wellbeing and happiness’. Sounds good, right?
Mindfulness is not about idealism or having the perfect life – it’s about embracing the life you have and living in the moment. Taking time out to think and reflect on a situation may even offer new ideas or ways of tackling issues that a busy brain wouldn’t have come up with. My own 8-year-old son summed up his thoughts on what mindfulness means to him with this awesome quote that I think we can all learn from: “ Mindfulness means not hitting the boy who annoys me every day in the mouth like I want to sometimes, it means thinking about why he is acting that way and then moving away
from him to take time out and calm down. I don’t get in trouble when I do it that way.”
I’m not suggesting for a minute that we are all fighting a constant urge to ‘smack a workmate’ but I
know there are times when I personally would have acted/reacted in a different way to a situation if I had just taken a minute to think and reflect on the outcome.
Back in the car with the rain still hammering and the kids now sulking I decide to take the advice
being offered by the oracle known as Disney and, as the song reaches its dramatic chorus, I take a deep breath, exhale and ‘Let It Go’ as I take a moment to be mindful…