"Mindfulness" is becoming the latest buzz word being applied as a solution in almost every industry, profession and human condition in the developed world. In British newspapers published in 2004, the term was used in articles just twice, yet ten years later that figure had risen to 150 mentions.
But what is exactly is mindfulness and why is it becoming a global panacea?
The practise of mindfulness has been derived from ancient Buddhist philosophies, and is described in the dictionary as "the meditative state of being both fully aware of the moment and of being self-conscious of and attentive to this awareness; a state of intense concentration on one’s own thought processes; self-awareness."
In basic terms, mindfulness appears to represent a reconnection with our current state of existence, instead of being constantly diverted into the past or future by hectic modern lifestyles that groan under a weight of information and stimuli. Consequently, mindfulness techniques are being utilised by organisations across the globe in order to bring peace and productivity to their over-stretched employees.
Some of the largest corporate institutions in the City of London are de-stressing their financiers using mindfulness practices whilst in schools they are being used to help children focus on their lessons.
Sally Boyle, head of human capital management at Goldman Sachs, said: “In years to come we’ll be talking about mindfulness as we talk about exercise.”
“We have just been overwhelmed by the response, particularly from the financial service sector,” said Alexandra Frey, who co-founded The Mindfulness Project which teaches secular meditation in London’s Fitzrovia.
“It’s all about being in the present moment. Our minds tend to drift off into the past or the future so it’s about training the brain to come back to now.
“It has been shown to work for so many different areas; chronic pain, depression, anxiety. Often the body is caught in a ‘fight or flight’ response because of stress and mindfulness brings a state of relaxation which has many health benefits.”
In some British schools, weekly mindfulness lessons are being brought in to give pupils time for quiet reflection, particularly as formal religious morning assemblies have been ceased in many educational establishments. At Wellington College in Berkshire, students now given the opportunity take part in a two-minute "stillness period" during assemblies, while teenagers in Years 9 and 10 had a timetabled weekly mindfulness session.
Even the National Health System in Britain is embracing the concept to tackle the growing incidence of depression and anxiety in the country. Instead of being prescribed anti-depressants, patients are now just as likely to be directed towards a mindfulness course to help treat their condition. Studies have indicated that patients who take part in mindfulness programmes see a reductions in stress and an improvement in mood and sense of well-being.
Mindfulness techniques combined with cognitive therapy have also been shown to reduce the risk of pre and post-natal depression relapse among pregnant women. Researchers at the University of Colorado in Boulder found that pregnant women with histories of major depression were less likely to relapse into depression if they used the mindfulness techniques.
Even the military are utilising mindfulness to help their troops prepare for combat: a study conducted at the University of California in San Diego earlier this year concluded that incorporating mindfulness programmes into pre-deployment training enabled service personnel to function more effectively and recover more easily from the stress of active service, reducing the incidence of post-service stress-related health conditions, including PTSD, depression and anxiety.
So what are the techniques and who can use them?
The techniques are simple and can be implemented by anyone, says Danny Penman, author of one of the many, many books currently available on the subject, "Mindfulness: A Practical Guide To Finding Peace In A Frantic World".
Penman suggests that one of the simplest ways to practise mindfulness is to sit in a straight backed chair, close your eyes, and focus on the sensations that your breath makes as it flows into and out of your body, says Penman. "As your mind begins to chase after different thoughts, bring your awareness back to the sensations of the breath."
Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, teacher, author, poet and peace activist, also suggests the following breathing techniques to achieve an appreciation of the "now":
"You may take three steps while breathing in and say “Breathing in, I calm my body” and then with the following three steps “Breathing out, I relax.” You can then shorten this to saying “calm” as you breathe in, and “relax” as you breathe out.
“Breathing in, I notice the colors all around me, breathing out, I smile.” Then shorten to “Breathing in, colors, breathing out, smile.” Even if we don’t feel like smiling, the simple act of doing a half-smile sometimes can change the tension in our faces, which in turn affects our mood.
"Breathing in, I have arrived, breathing out, I am home.” Then shorten too “Breathing in, arrived, breathing out, home.” Have you ever had the experience where you were rushing home to relax. It doesn’t make sense and isn’t effective is calming the nervous system. Sometimes reminding ourselves that we have arrived to the present moment already and that we are home can help calm an anxious mind. We can then slow down and get home a few minutes later in a more collected and relaxed state."
More innovative uses and ways to adopt the practices are constantly being found: even tech addicts can help break their cyber habits using mindfulness. Unhealthy addictions to phones and other devices can reduce consciousness and awareness of our surroundings, but this addiction can be turned around using mindfulness techniques, and technology can instead be used as a tool to raise rather than reduce awareness.
Receiving texts and emails gives us a shot of the "pleasure seeking" neurotransmitter dopamine in our brains, reinforcing our addictions to techy hits. Merely taking the decision to create "space" by turning off devices or wifi so that messages are no longer constantly received can provide the opportunity for enhanced awareness of our true feelings. Being deprived of our techy "fix" will give rise to uncomfortable feelings, but acknowledging and accepting these feelings is again a step towards heightened awareness of self.
The full YouTube video describing these techniques can be accessed here.
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