An introduction to Mindfulness
“Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges through paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally…to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.” Jon Kabat-Zinn
Organisational life these days is a seemingly infinite list of unanswered questions and daily challenges arising as part of a relentless pace of change. It is Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. Just when one issue seems to resolve itself, another one we couldn’t have anticipated floats to the surface. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Mindfulness is not about putting a stop to this confusion and difficulty. Rather, it is a practice of bringing awareness to our bodies, our emotions, and our thoughts so we can develop a new relationship to our experience. Through mindfulness we can learn to meet life’s challenges in a different way – with a greater sense of personal well being, with acceptance, kindness, and an open heart.
Mindful Awareness Practices increase awareness, clarity and acceptance of our present moment reality. They are simply a practical way to notice thoughts, physical sensations, sights, sounds, smells – anything we might not normally notice. The actual skills might be simple, but because they are so different to how our minds normally behave, it takes practice. Being mindful helps us to train our attention. Our minds wander at least 50% of the time, but when we practise being mindful, we are exercising our attention “muscle” and becoming mentally fitter. We can take more control over our focus of attention, and choose what we focus on rather than passively allowing our attention to be dominated by that which takes us away from the present moment. Mindfulness might simply be described as choosing and learning to control our focus of attention.
It is the ability to be present, self-aware, and cognisant of others and one’s environment. It is an intentional, present-moment awareness, without reactivity or judgment. It is the quality of mind that allows us to see the bigger picture, and to bring a power of observation to all that we do. It is mindful attention that allows us to be emotionally intelligent, socially aware and skillful in our interactions with others.
How can this benefit me?
The research exploring mindfulness is demonstrating that repeated practice can lead to changes in our lives, including:
- Reduced stress
- Managing chronic pain
- Boosting the body’s immune system to fight disease
- Coping with painful life events, such as death of a loved one or major illness
- Dealing with powerful negative emotions like anger, fear and greed
- Increasing self-awareness to detect harmful reactive patterns of thought, feelings and action
- Improving attention and concentration
- Enhancing positive emotions, including happiness and compassion
- Increasing interpersonal skills in relationships
- Reducing addictive behaviours
- Enhancing performance whether in work, sports or academics
- Stimulating and releasing creativity
- Changing positively the actual structure of our brains
In a car, we can sometimes drive for miles on “automatic pilot”, without really being aware of what we are doing. We can live our whole lives in this way… often ‘miles away’ without knowing it. We do countless things in our day without actually being aware that we are doing them and this serves us well in many facets of life.
However, being on automatic pilot has many dangers – we’re more likely to have our buttons pressed – events around us and thoughts, feelings and sensations in the mind (of which we may be only dimly aware) can trigger old habits of thinking that are often unhelpful and may lead to worsening mood with negative consequences for both us and those around us. By becoming more aware of our thoughts, feelings, and body sensations, from moment to moment, we give ourselves the possibility of greater freedom and choice; we do not have to go into the same old “mental ruts” that may have caused problems in the past.
“Between a stimulus and a response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. The last of human freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.” – Viktor Frankl
The surprising truth about what drives stress and how to build resilience…
When you ask people about stress they often talk about stressful situations in their lives or stressful people. But there is a problem with this approach. The major factor that determines your stress levels is not what exists ‘out there’ but what is happening ‘in here’ in your thinking.
To understand this, you first need to recognise the difference between pressure and stress. We talk about these things as if they are the same and they are not. Pressure is the external demand in the environment. Everyone has pressures in their work and life – deadlines, projects, family demands. That is not stress. Stress is what people do with that pressure in their minds. One factor above all others has been identified as being the key driver of a person’s stress – rumination.
Rumination is the mental process of thinking over and over about something that happened either in the past or could happen in the future and attaching a negative emotion to it. Ruminations about the future are associated with ‘what if this or that happens’. Ruminations about the past replay over and over some awful experience you had and usually end with ‘if only I had… or ‘I should have done.’
People who ruminate a lot have chronically elevated levels of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol meaning they are over active and on edge.
Automatic pilot can also be called daydreaming. When we daydream we are off in our head thinking about some event in the past or in the future. The truth is, we are not just daydreaming, we are in a state of ‘sleep’. In this state, waking sleep, people are neither fully awake or asleep. Why does this matter? Because this is the state in which all our rumination and therefore all of our stress is generated. If all rumination and stress is created in the state of waking sleep, the first step in getting out of it is simple – wake up!
The Four Steps to Building Resilience
- Wake up (and stay awake)
- Control your attention
- Let go
The house below offers a visual metaphor for how you bring all four resilience steps together in one place. Imagine that the house is your mind and the floodwater outside is all the pressure, thoughts and emotions you face each day. You have three options for how to respond:
Denial – try to hold the front door shut and pretend none of those thoughts or feelings exists. Eventually the door will blow open and you will be swept way.
Rumination – Open the door, jump into the water and start swimming in your thoughts and feelings. This will leave you frantic, exhausted and overwhelmed.
Letting Go – Notice that as well as a front door the house also has a back door and a loft. Open the front and back doors so thoughts and stories can flow through, then go up to the loft. From there, you can stay detached and observe the thoughts and feelings as they pass through. Don’t get down and get tangled up with them, and don’t try to hold them out. Simply let them come and let them go.
When you take this approach, you are applying all four steps at once. When you practice this, you may start to notice that you feel more grounded and present. You may face the same challenges you faced as before, but you start to look at them in a new, more detached way. Furthermore, you may discover that some of what you saw as your biggest problems are not really problems at all. They are, in the end, just your thoughts.
Mindfulness of breath
Sit in a comfortable position. You may choose to close your eyes or keep them open, if you are feeling tired it may be useful to let just a little bit of light in to keep you alert.
Begin by gently moving your attention onto the process of breathing. Simply observe each breath as it happens, whether you focus on the rise and fall of your chest or abdomen, or on the sensation of the breath at the nostrils. Really feel what it is like to breath, without feeling the need to alter your breath, just observing it as it happens.
As you engage in this exercise you may find that your mind wanders, caught by thoughts or by noises in the room, or bodily sensations. When you notice that this happens, know that this is okay, and simply notice the distraction but gently bring your attention back to the breath.
Ending the exercise
Take a few moments to yourself, just to really feel connected with the present moment. Expand your awareness from the breath into the room around you, and as you feel comfortable to do so, open your eyes and bring the exercise to a close.
Take a few moments to think about what your experience was in this exercise, and how you feel in the present moment.
A simple tip to spark mindfulness!
S Stop. Simply pause from what you are doing.
T Take a few slow, deep, breaths with awareness and tune in.
O Observe and curiously notice your thoughts, feelings, and sensations.
P Proceed with whatever you were doing with awareness and kindness
Mindfulness – A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world Mark Williams and Danny Penman
Fully Present – the Science, Art and Practice of Mindfulness Susan L Smalley and Diana Winston
How to Train a Wild Elephant and other adventures in Mindfulness Jan Chozen Bays
Sane New World – Taming the Mind Ruby Wax
Full Catastrophe Living – how to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfulness Jon Kabat-Zinn
http://www.mindfulnet.org Everything you need to know about Mindfulness on one website
https://www.headspace.com/ Headspace is a gym membership for the mind. A course of guided meditation delivered via an app or on-line
http://www.mindful.org Mindful magazine
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