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Beginner’s Guide to Mindfulness

Where has your mind been today? Probably a lot of places other than the here-and-now. You might have worried about the future, made plans, remembered the past with pleasure or regret, and thought about yourself a good deal: how you’re doing, what you’re like, how you compare to other people. Maybe your thoughts have all been pleasant, but probably not: most of us tie ourselves in knots, at least some of the time, with our worrying, regretting, and self-criticism. Research shows that the more our minds wander, the less happy we are. This isn’t a new problem, which is why for thousands of years people have been training their minds to be present, with what is actually happening right here, right now. This is the practice of mindfulness. 

Mindfulness has been a part of most major religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufi Islam, and even Judaism and Christianity) but in recent decades purely secular forms have been developed and made available to everyone. Nowadays mindfulness is taught to top athletes, schoolchildren, Members of Parliament, soldiers, business leaders, and the general public. It is used to improve performance, to enhance happiness and wellbeing, and to treat mental health issues. Mindfulness is everywhere, because it works! 

So what exactly is it, and how exactly does it work? Most simply, mindfulness means knowing what is happening while it is happening. Being aware of what you can feel, see, and hear, and of what you are thinking, as opposed to being a million miles away, lost in thought. We can be mindful in any moment, and start to experience the benefits of it, just by noticing what is happening right now. How does your body feel? What can you see? What can you hear? What thoughts are passing through your mind? But if you try this you will probably find that you cannot keep it up for long, before you get lost in your thoughts again. Mindfulness goes against the usual habit of our minds, which is to wander, and so to develop it we have to practise. Some people like to practise on the go, by bringing mindfulness to daily activities like walking, doing the washing up, or even having conversations. This can be very beneficial in itself. However, we can develop a deeper level of mindfulness by setting aside some dedicated time for practice: by meditating each day. People who do this report a wide range of benefits, such as greater focus and productivity, less stress, anxiety, and anger, better sleep, greater empathy, more confidence, improved relationships, and more enjoyment of their daily activities. 

You can more information about our books on mindfulness here.

It might seem strange that present-moment awareness could produce so many benefits, but modern brain science is starting to tell us just how it happens. One of the leading theories is that mindfulness meditation improves the functioning of the prefrontal cortex. You could think of this as the “chief executive” of the brain; the part that co-ordinates your thoughts, feelings and actions in the pursuit of what you value. In particular, it has been shown to regulate the wandering mind, the brain’s emotion centres, and its reward system (which sounds nice but is what gets us hooked on the things we crave, such as unhealthy food, alcohol, drugs, and smartphones). When we practise mindfulness meditation we are effectively sending our prefrontal cortex to the gym, and beefing up its abilities to regulate our thinking, our emotions, and our desire for the things we like. With mindfulness, we can make choices about what we do, instead of being controlled by our thoughts, emotions, and urges. 

If you want to learn mindfulness, you have quite a few options. It has been integrated into a number of psychological therapies, so you can learn it from some therapists. Or you can go on a dedicated mindfulness course. Or you can learn it at home using a book or an app.  But in the end, it is all about practice. Others can show you the technique, but it is only you who can use it. Start today, and begin to wake up to your life, right here, right now.

DR MICHAEL SINCLAIR. Consultant Counselling Psychologist, Clinical Director talks about Mindfulness. 

 
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