A state of mindfulness

by Margo White / 20 December, 2012
Want to reduce stress while improving your memory, concentration and learning ability?
A state of mindfulness

It might still be associated with the 70s, Woodstock and rock stars in paisley shirts, yet hardly a week goes by without a scientific journal publishing something about the psychological, physical and emotional benefits of meditation. These days, the more contemporary term is “mindfulness” – a state of mind that meditation helps promote – which is proving effective in treating, among other things, depression, anxiety, chronic pain and eating disorders and helping people stop smoking.

We would all, apparently, benefit from a little mindfulness. It has also been shown to improve concentration and working memory, decrease the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the bloodstream and increase the activity of the enzyme telomerase, which protects DNA from degeneration. Brain scans of Buddhist monks have suggested it increases the grey matter in the hippocampus, which is important for learning and memory, and calms the amygdala, which responds to stress and anxiety.

Mindfulness has its roots in Buddhist philosophy and has been secularised for a modern Western audience, but what exactly is it? Practitioners will have their own idiosyncratic take, but the general theory is that by encouraging us to “be in the moment”, mindfulness promotes awareness, attention and thoughtfulness.

This can then be applied to unwanted thoughts and feelings – the trick is to step back and observe them, rather than ruminate on them. “So, if you wake up and you feel exhausted and tired and lonely, just feel the feeling, know that it probably won’t last long, feel it as deeply as you can, then let it go,” says Mark Thorpe, head of the Department of Psychology at AUT University of Technology. “Don’t hold onto it, and don’t push it away, either. It’s walking the middle road, between suppressing feelings and holding onto them.”

Nowadays, most cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) includes some version of mindfulness. Traditionally, CBT has worked on the theory that our (illogical, catastrophising) thoughts influence behaviour and feelings, so if you change the thoughts, you’ll change the feelings and behaviour. Mindfulness isn’t so much about changing the thoughts, but stepping back from them – recognising that they are just thoughts, not necessarily a reflection of reality. “Cognitive fusion is when we confuse what we’re thinking and feeling with what is actually going on in the world.”

Thorpe has practised meditation for 30 years, and although he doesn’t have the time to meditate as much as he’d like (30 minutes each morning), he tries to incorporate it into small moments of his day. “Sometimes when I walk down passages at AUT, I will just try to be aware of my feet touching the ground, and my breathing. I tend to do it when I brush my teeth. I try, not sufficiently, to do it when I eat.” There are different approaches to teaching mindfulness; a teacher or psychologist might get you to focus on breathing, on your body or on an object. But how does this help us deal with the rest of the day?

“It sets a baseline of being more mindful and more aware,” says Thorpe. “If I don’t do it, I’m already in a rushing chaotic state. It entrains me, or puts me into that [mindful] mood. I think it does some neuropsych things to my head; that it makes it more open, more curious. It slows it down and makes me more observing.”

He agrees that although mindfulness has its roots in Buddhist philosophy, it harnesses all sorts of philosophical, spiritual, religious and psychotherapeutic traditions. This is reflected in the aphorisms: change what you can and accept what you can’t; this, too, will pass; shit happens; slow down and smell the roses. “Yes, you could say it’s been going for about 10,000 years.”

Mindfulness is quite the fashion at the moment, he says, but probably something else will come into vogue in the therapeutic future. Still, he’ll continue to meditate. “It helps me be more aware, more alive, a bit more compassionate, more accepting, more patient. Whether that’s only from the meditation or mindfulness is debatable, but when I’m meditating more regularly, it does have that effect.”

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