“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” John Kabat-Zinn
Socially and culturally the pressure is on to be active, achieve and do things. There’s not a lot of time for be-ing; time to simply notice what is present, and accept what is. Time is of the essence, and with multiple health, financial and work pressures, taking time out from persistent activity and busyness can seem almost taboo or lazy. As the old saying goes “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
Constant activity and pressures to achieve can encourage behavioural and emotional habits that we take as simply ‘the way things are’. In neuroimaging research this is called the default mode network (see Expert Fact Sheet: Mindfulness – How might it work and is there any evidence?). We think about the future and develop anxieties about what may be heading our way even though nothing has happened. Or we ruminate on the past and dwell on regrets, increasing depressive states, even though we can’t change the past. Meanwhile the present moment is missed. Our minds create stories to make sense of things, and we accept them as true, without taking time to reflect, or even notice, the content. Moreover, we can become used to automatically turning away from negative experiences or emotions, as if that makes them go away. Reactivity, not responsivity, to the world sets in.
Proponents of mindfulness argue that by living this way we miss out on the only moment that is immediately accessible to us – the present, and they link this with emotional and physical distress. Kabat-Zinn, a pioneer in the field, defines mindfulness as “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally” (Keng, Smoski and Robins, 2011). In his, and others’, view mindfulness is the antidote to mindlessness and disconnection. The claim is that purposively practising present moment attention will improve wellbeing and awareness (see Expert fact sheet Mindfulness – How might it work and is there any evidence?)
Mindfulness supporters offer several ways to practise mindfulness. Here are some of the more common ones:
- Regular daily practice – set aside a specific time to sit quietly, without interruption and practise noticing one’s breath, arising bodily sensations, or other sensations without judgement. Each time the mind wanders (and it will), return to the set focus of attention.
- The Body Scan – consciously pay attention to internal and external bodily states without judgement, as you notice in turn each part of the body from the feet and toes, up through to the top of the head. Again, each time the mind wanders (and yes, it will), return to the body part that was being noticed.
- Moments of mindfulness – approach regular daily tasks like making the bed, brushing your teeth, or having a shower with mindfulness, even if just for a couple of minutes. Simply notice during the activity the bodily, emotional and cognitive components of your experience, without judgement.
- Mindful eating – consciously notice the smell, texture and taste of a portion of food. Take the time to contemplate how the food looks on the plate, the smell of the meal, and the mouth feel as you eat.
As an accompanying fact sheet will discuss, there is evidence suggesting that practising mindfulness may assist improving health and wellbeing, although research is still ongoing.
As with all decisions regarding your health, please consult a trusted health professional regarding the potential benefits of any intervention for your unique circumstances.
Here are some further resources for your consideration:
Smiling Mind App https://www.smilingmind.com.au
Mindfulness App - https://themindfulnessapp.com/
Openground Mindfulness Training: https://www.openground.com.au/
Kabat Zinn Full Catastrophe Living. (Second Edition) Piatkus, London, UK, 1990, 2013
- Keng, Smoski and Robins. “Effects of Mindfulness on Psychological Health: A Review of Empirical Studies.” In Clinical Psychology Review, August, 2011, volume 31, number 6, pp. 1041–1056.
Dr Alice Dwyer BA (Hons) MBBS (Hons) MPsych FRANZCP