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Mindfulness

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a modern extension of the Hindu and Buddhist traditions of meditation. In the second half of the twentieth century the Vietnames Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a series of popular books, including the bestselling book The Miracle of Mindfulness, which brought to a western audience many of the principles of Zen Buddhism and simple meditation practices. Others such as Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School have used mindfulness techniques to treat people who are chronically ill or experiencing stressful thoughts. Links have also been drawn between mindfulness techniques and CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) techniques for helping with stress, anxiety and depression which focus on putting distorted or exagerrated thinking patterns in perspective.

Aspects of Mindfulness

Mindfulness involves trying to approach life in a calm way, focusing on the present rather than getting lost in anxieties or worries or unproductive thoughts about the future or past. Two classic examples of activities you might try to enhance your mindfulness are:

1. Set aside a day or half a day weekly or once in a while to just take things calmly, slowly and in a relaxed way without feeling that you have to get things done quickly or achieve certain results. Perhaps go for a walk, noticing your environment in an attentive way, observing what is going on around you, listening to any sounds. Take time to prepare your meals and savour the food you eat or any drinks you have, noticing the flavours and textures and your experience of it (even if you don't like the taste, just observe what it is and your reaction and feelings about it). Maybe do some daily tasks in a considered way without rushing them or feeling you have to get them done as quickly as possible. Perhaps visit or spend time with a friend, enjoying the experience, the relationship. Or do activities you find relaxing, taking your time to appreciate them. Practise smiling to yourself and others!

2. Each time you are doing an activity that you tend to rush or resent or not appreciate, consciously decide to take your time over it and do it attentively and carefully. Thich Nhat Hanh's most famous example of this is probably 'washing the dishes to wash the dishes', i.e. when you wash the dishes take time to clean them carefully and calmly and treat this as an experience to enjoy, to respect, not as an irritating chore that you have to get done as quickly as you can.

Basic Meditation Practice

Formal meditation or breathing practice is usually seen as a part of mindfulness practice. Following a basic meditation practice regularly can also help you to stay calm , manage your anxieties and reduce the amount of time you spend in the chatter of the mind. You can find an example of a simple meditation exercise at: Meditation Exercise.

You can also recite short verses (sometimes known as gathas) while you carry out daily activities or to focus on breathing calmly. An example would be the gatha for 'Following the Breath' given by Thich Nhat Hanh in his book Present Moment, Wonderful Moment (also features in his book Being Peace):

"Breathing in, I calm my body.

Breathing out, I smile.

Dwelling in the present moment,

I know this is a wonderful moment!"

Note: You do not have to save this gatha for a moment which you would consider wonderful even if you weren't being mindful. The idea is for you to say the verse to yourself to help you focus on the moment and be at one with yourself in a calm way in almost any situation.

How Can Mindfulness and Meditation Help with Anxiety?

Mindfulness and meditation can help with anxiety by:

Detached Observation of Your Self

A basic form of mindfulness that you can practise if you experience anxiety, when you are anxious is to try simply to observe your thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and actions in a non-judgemental and detached way.

To do this it can be helpful to imagine that you are a friendly bystander or a scientist conducting an observation of yourself and to describe what you see (about yourself) in the third person, e.g. if I were observing myself in this way when anxious, I might note to myself:

'David is thinking that he will fail his driving test. He is pacing up and down the room in an agitated way. He is sweating and not aware of what is going on around him. He is feeling tense...'

What is important in this kind of detached observation is that you try not to judge yourself, you simply pay attention to what you and your body are doing and observe it. if you are able to smile at yourself in a Buddha-like way then that may help too! If you do find you are judging yourself, then just report that too, e.g. 'David is criticising himself for not being able to control his feelings.'

One of the problems with anxiety is often that you try too hard to get rid of it and that just makes it worse. This practice of simply observing is a way of moving away from that tendency to overreact to anxiety. In the old days there used to be a distinction made between Being and Doing. This kind of self-observation in a non-judgemental way is linked with that Zen-like notion of living in the present and not rushing things, which may be seen as focusing more on Being than Doing.

 

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