‘Do not dwell on the past. Do not dream of the future.
Concentrate the mind on the present moment.’
Mindfulness is our ability to be fully present – to ourselves, to our experience at any given moment, to others and to the world around us.
Although the quality of mindful awareness is something that is always available, it is also something that has to be nurtured and practiced, as we humans can spend a lot of our time far away from the present moment and, sometimes, far away from ourselves, lost in past or future, fantasies, daydreams or worries.
Mindfulness training, regardless of setting, helps to develop attention and present moment awareness. The cultivation of mindfulness – of paying attention “on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally” allows basic patterns of thinking, feeling and physiological changes to be observed. The ‘non-judgemental’ aspect of mindfulness is extremely important, as judging our experience (as good/bad; pleasant/unpleasant; appropriate/inappropriate etc.) is how we normally relate to ourselves, other people and situations. Developing an awareness of how we relate to our experience can be crucial in supporting well-being and helping us break old habits of mind that may be unhelpful.
The purpose of training where our attention goes is to help us become more aware more often. So if you were a fly on the wall at a mindfulness class, you might see people sitting or lying very still and really looking like they’re not doing very much at all! However if you have ever tried to practice paying attention to something as simple as your breathing even for a couple of minutes, you might quickly discover that the mind is having none of it! It has its own agenda! The wonderful teacher Thich Nhat Hanh describes the practice of mindfulness as being ‘simple, but not easy’ and we can discover just how true this simple statement is for ourselves whenever we try to focus our attention on one thing for more than a few moments! Very soon we may become aware that we’re making plans for tea or what’s on TV later. We get lost in all kinds of thoughts. And so the essence of mindfulness is to regain awareness when the mind strays from whatever the focus of awareness is meant to be in that moment. This ‘coming to awareness’ is crucial to stopping negative cycles of rumination that can be turning points for our mood to deteriorate. All thoughts are treated the same in terms of mindfulness practice. So whether we train on the neutral thought of ‘what will I make for dinner?’ or the powerful one that says ‘I am never going to be able to do this!’ the goal remains the same – to come back to the present moment, gently back to working with the breath.
Mindfulness meditation is neither new nor particular to any one culture or religion. It has been a central part of many spiritual traditions, including Christianity, for thousands of years. It is central to Buddhist teachings and to Buddhist psychology. It is only relatively recently that Western medical and psychological sciences have begun to pay attention to the potential health benefits of mindfulness practice. Jon Kabat-Zinn has pioneered the application of mindfulness meditation in healthcare since the late 1970’s. As a micro-biologist and following his own extensive study and practice of mindfulness, he developed an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programme to complement medical care for chronic pain and other medical conditions (e.g. arthritis, cardio-obstructive pulmonary disease, multiple sclerosis etc.) that did not respond to purely medical treatments alone. The programme was established to help complement the work of standard medical care and took place at the Complementary Medicine Department of the University of Massachusetts Medical Centre. It has remained relatively unchanged since that time. This programme has now been adopted by health and medical care centres throughout the world as part of a new more ‘participatory’ approach to healthcare, where patients are supported to assume greater responsibility in their own healing.
Research evidence in support of mindfulness-based interventions (MBI’s) has grown exponentially over the past decade. Grossman et al. (2004) conducted a review study of the health benefits of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and found reductions in pain, skin and heart conditions; depression and anxiety; quality of life and immune strength in those with cancer.
Since then, numerous other studies all over the world are producing outcomes that confirm the immense value of mindfulness being used in the mainstream of medicine, the health sciences and education. This growing body of scientific research now recognises that learning and practising mindfulness can positively affect our sense of health and well-being physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. As a result mindfulness is now taught across the world in a wide variety of settings – healthcare, education, business – to help people respond effectively to stress and illness in their lives.
It is interesting that the root word of the verb ‘to heal’ is also the root of the word ‘to make whole.’ So, in an important way, language suggests that real healing might also mean ‘whole-ing.’ Mindfulness offers us a way of beginning this journey, by paying attention to what is unfolding within our own body, feelings and mind, breath by breath, moment by moment.
‘The present is the only time that any of us have to be alive – to know anything – to perceive – to learn -to act – to change – to heal.’