I remember the first time I was introduced to the concept of mindfulness, way back at the start of my first year of university. It was a small group tutorial and the tutor suggested we try something different to get us focused before starting on whatever tasks we had that day. Probably not a bad idea seeing as these tutorials generally came straight after a 9am lecture and it's pretty hard to feel like you're concentrating when you've spent the last hour sat in a warm lecture theatre with two hundred other people, very likely having been out the night before. Without really telling us what this was all about, the tutor led the group through a mindfulness meditation process of a body scan. At the time, I remember this feeling really weird. Why was this woman asking up to close our eyes and think about whether our feet felt hot or cold, and what the chair felt like against our backs?! I also remember her asking afterwards what we felt like... and being honest eighteen year olds we said we didn't really understand at all!
Mindfulness has popped up many times since then in my degree - I've even written an essay on the subject, discussing whether it's a useful technique to teach medical students. We've had bizarre tutorials involving mindfully eating a raisin (some groups had to 'listen' to their raisins) during which most people could only just about contain their giggles, and we've had lecturers lead the whole year through meditations to demonstrate stress pathways. It appears in medical literature as a potential treatment for depression and anxiety and I've met psychiatrists and GPs who recommend it to their patients.
It's not just during my course that I hear about mindfulness now though. I'm coming across it more and more frequently in every day life - on the news, in magazines and online. My experience of mindfulness has been pretty mixed. Sitting in a group intensely sniffing a sticky raisin was a bit of low point and doesn't do a lot for the image of meditation as something for everyone not just hippies, but practising some of the techniques for myself definitely brings a lot of benefits.
When I think of meditation, I still picture someone in floaty clothes, sat cross legged by some burning incense, chanting or humming. It seems pretty obvious that meditation can make you feel relaxed and chilled out at the time you do it, but it's less obvious that you can take some of the techniques and apply them to day to day life. Mindfulness isn't about going into a trance-like state, it's almost the opposite - about being fully aware of the moment rather than trying to focus on what you need to be doing in the future, or what's happened in the past. Here are some of the ways that the techniques used during mindfulness meditations can be applied to other situations in life...
Maintain focus during lectures or meetings.
Lots of mindfulness meditations get you to focus on something specific right at that moment - perhaps a noise, or the feel of fabric on your skin. You learn to tune out of other sensations and pay attention to that one specific thing. When there's lots of background noise or distractions around you, or your thoughts are elsewhere, it can hard to concentrate on what's being said in a lecture or meeting. Applying the same technique of tuning in to just the speaker can help you listen and gain what you need to from the session.
Getting the most out of exercise.
Lots of mindfulness meditations focus on 'body scans' - taking different body parts in turn and thinking about how they feel. When running, it makes it easier to think about what my body is doing - whether that's noticing that I keep screwing my toes up as I land, tightness in one leg or the other or not breathing deeply enough. Noticing that I'm doing these things means I can correct them and improve my technique.
Enjoying food - and eating sensible portions
You could think of it a bit like wine tasting - rather than just gulping it down, taking the time to appreciate the flavours. While I don't suggest you sit there rolling every forkful around your mouth for ages, taking the time to eat slowly and really appreciate your food means you get a lot more from it. Apparently there have been studies that show that people who 'eat mindfully' eat less than those who don't, and I guess that probably makes sense. I'm not planning on cutting down my food intake anytime soon, but it might help me make my chocolate last a bit longer if I actually tasted it!
A way of dealing with stress or anxiety.
I've already mentioned that mindfulness is used in the treatment of anxiety and depression. It's not just the physical act of meditating that helps, but the learning to regulate thoughts and to recognise feelings of tension whenever they arise. Mindfulness teaches you to accept that thoughts come and go, but that you don't necessarily need to act on them right now. Being mindful of how your brain and body feel can help you recognise stress and anxiety much earlier and take action to deal with them.
Have you ever tried mindfulness? What benefits have you found from it?