Mindfulness: What’s it all About?

Written by Ignatius Harling 

Mindfulness. It's a word you hear a lot these days: mindful living, mindful eating, mindful breathing. They're even teaching mindfulness in primary and secondary schools. But what is mindfulness, and what can it do for you?

Ruby Wax, a funny, feisty proponent of mindfulness practice claims that we are all just too busy - and not only that - we are also prone to high levels of stress. It's hard to argue with that. The trouble is we don't want to admit it. Not admitting to feeling stressed has lead to some 45 million working days per year being lost. Stress is linked to anxiety, depressive illnesses, and alcohol and drug misuse. And stress doesn't care whether you own up to it or not. Those lost days tell the real story. The fact is stress is making many of us very ill.

Interestingly, the human 'fight or flight' response is involved in what causes stress. Paleolithic-pre-agricultural-humans were 'hunter-gatherers': foragers of food, shelter and warmth. Life was hazardous and the overwhelming preoccupation that consumed these humans, apart from procreation (well, some things never change) was survival. The human brain has not evolved significantly since the Paleolithic era. Whilst science and technology have made the world unrecognisable to our ancestors, our troublesome brains are still issuing their dire warnings. 

That's not to say, of course, that modern life is without hazard. The trouble lies in the appropriateness of the stress response. And this is where mindfulness practice can help.

Mindfulness is a form of meditation and is, in essence, a practice derived from Hindu and Buddhist teaching. The practice involves sitting quietly and becoming aware of your breathing. That's easy. We all do it. This awareness of the breath - and as you go along, awareness of sound and bodily sensation - is used as an anchor, a point to which to return every time you find your mind getting busy.

This is not to say your thinking is the enemy. It isn't. The human brain is the most complex - some would say beautiful - natural object in creation. But regular observation of thought processes can show even the most skeptical amongst us just how random, inconsequential and irrelevant some of our thoughts actually are. But many of them still worry us.

Over time, those who practice mindfulness report a decrease in stress and an increased ability to think clearly. Research suggests a significant reduction in Cortisol, the brain chemical associated with stress. Daily practice of anything from ten minutes is thought to boost creativity, diminish anxiety and depression and enhance general wellbeing.

The last word on mindfulness goes to Ruby: "If any other organ of our body was this sick we'd get sympathy cards".

Suggested reading:
Ruby Wax: Mindfulness for the Frazzled
Steve Hagen: Buddhism Plain and Simple