What exactly is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a kind of brain training, which is to do with observing our minds in a kind, patient and curious way without being critical. It helps us to focus our attention on what we want to focus on when our mind wanders away from what we are doing and we feel our mind is scattered and all over the place. It is a skill that we can learn.  It helps us realise that we may be being reactive in a situation and helps us to step back and to see other choices before we take action. It can be helpful in stopping us from sending a reactive email or saying something to someone that we may regret later. It also assists us to appreciate the good things that go on in our daily life and to be kind to ourselves, as well as helping us cope with the difficulties that we all have in life.

Have you ever been in a situation when someone says – ‘Just relax… you will be ok’. Well it is not usually that simple is it – it’s ok for the other person because they are ok just at that moment but you are not! So what mindfulness does is it can show you how to take control so you can see more choices in a situation. It gives you to tools to do it rather than just saying you should do it.

So at the end of an accredited mindfulness course which usually takes about 8 sessions you end up with  a toolkit of about 20 techniques that you can use when you want to. Obviously you don’t need to use them all the time but if you can keep them sharp with daily practice, then they are ready when you need them… and as you go along you learn to care for yourself and how you can  make the most of each day of your life.

Who can learn mindfulness training?

Anyone from 7 years to 107 years – it can be done by anyone at any stage in their life.

How does it work?

It is a bit like training the body. It is best when you do a little bit each day. There is scientific evidence to show that 40 minutes a day makes a difference but many people do not have enough time for that, especially at the beginning,  there is research being done to see how it works with 10 minutes a day. The initial results are looking promising.  I have noticed a difference for myself when I do 10 minutes each day. A little each day is better than a whole lot  on one day. It is similar to when we go to a body gym.

Regular practice reinforces neural circuits in the brain and nervous system. Most scientific studies on mindfulness and the brain have been on the effects with the hippocampus, pre-frontal cortex, amygdalae and the insula. The use of fMRI scanners will help give us more information as more scientific research is carried out. If you do a google search you will find lots of scientific papers about mindfulness.

Daily practice keeps the tools sharp–we don’t always use the tools each day but once the techniques are  learned and practised each day, they are available and effective when we need them.

How has mindfulness made a difference to you?

I find that I am more relaxed in what I am doing and that I can do a lot more. I enjoy what I am doing, at the time, rather than worrying about what might happen in the future and I am more able to step back, before I make a decision so that I tend not to react to a situation – even though I am aware of it and the effects on me. That does not mean I take things lying down – I have learned to have a different relationship with the things I cannot change in my life. I can also be more discerning about what I need to change in order to look after myself.

I have realised that people are very busy  these days – even children. I have recognised that in order to help others, it is important to look after yourself too – a bit like putting on the oxygen mask in the plane during an emergency. I guess ultimately we are all responsible for our own health, but sometimes we forget that. My mindfulness practice helps me keep in touch with my own needs. It has made me feel more connected with myself and with other people

How is mindfulness different from meditation?

Meditation tends to be something that we do at a particular time, in a particular place and people tend to notice that you are doing something different. Informal mindfulness can be done anywhere, at any time. You can do it sitting, standing, lying down, waiting in a line or before an exam or stressful meeting. Quite a lot of the time people cannot tell that you are practising mindfulness – it is something you do for yourself.

Formal mindfulness practice is best done every day for at least 10 minutes.  For this it is useful to have a quiet place and time to focus on the practice. During a formal practice you are giving your attention just to mindfulness so this is when the neural circuits in our brains are reinforced – it is a bit like keeping the muscles in the body toned.

What is the best way to learn mindfulness?

It depends on what is available, but the 8 session courses are what the current scientific research shows works for many people. It is also important to be taught by someone who has their own daily mindfulness practice and who is properly trained to teach mindfulness. It is important to check that your teacher is a trained mindfulness teacher. Some people think you can teach mindfulness from a book. But just like teaching swimming I think it is best taught by someone who actually does it and has the personal embodied experience of mindfulness in their daily life. It helps to be in a group because then you can share the experience with others who notice similar things to you.

Some people feel disappointed because the effect of the  mindfulness training does not last after doing a short course of a few hours. Mindfulness is not a quick fix – it is a bit like preparing for a marathon – a little each day over a longer time produces the best results. Some people say it is like putting some stitches in a parachute each day so that when the big difficulties come along the parachute is ready for action.

Like all things in life – the more you practice the more effective it becomes. I worked out there are 1440 minutes in each day and if I take 10 minutes for my formal mindfulness practice each day there are still 1430 minutes left for everything else.  When I first started mindfulness training I did not even have 10 minutes spare in each day. I had to wake up 10 minutes earlier. Now I notice how scattered my mind becomes when I don’t do my mindfulness practice – it is always a good reminder to me that I may have skipped my practice that day. We are all human and miss some practice out and it is important to not judge ourselves too harshly when we do.

What do you do for your mindfulness practice each day?

I get up at 6am and have a hot lemon drink. I do some mindful movement exercises and then I do my 15 -20 minutes sitting and breathing and 5 minutes mindful walking. It takes about 30 -40 minutes each day. I knew that it was making a difference when I started to miss it, on the days when I did not do it. My scattered and fragmented days remind me of the value of a regular practice.

What happens if you don't practice?

I find that if I do not start the day this way I feel more agitated and my mind flits around a lot more and I get more distracted during the day when I really have to concentrate and get something done. I also worry about things that I cannot control rather than getting on with the things I can control and are more important. I often forget to notice the good things happening around me.

How is mindful walking different from normal walking?

I always think there are two ways of considering mindful walking. Firstly you can walk around really noticing what is going on – perhaps noticing the flowers, the birds singing or really listening to what your friend is saying as you walk along. I find that even in that situation my mind can wander off to what I may be doing later, so with the mindfulness practice I keep bringing my attention back to where I want it to be.  Some people call this mindful strolling.

Secondly there is the more formal mindful walking – where you walk more slowly – noticing the physical movements of the body. Also whenever your mind wanders off to something else which of course it always does at some stage – then, when you have noticed the mind wandering,  you can bring your attention back to the soles of the feet. It takes a bit of practice to do this but it is really effective once you have practised it and begun to set up those neural circuits.

A lot of people find they can put mindfulness into their daily life by doing mindful walking. We all walk each day, so it does not take extra time – it is just a different way of doing it. You can walk at the same pace as usual but instead of thinking about other things like events coming up, what you might have for dinner or something that is troubling you–you take a bit of space out and concentrate on your body movements – bringing your mind back to the body movements whenever it wanders. You can do this with running or any other activity.

Some people think that mindfulness does not work

Before a judgement is made, I think it is helpful if people try it out for themselves. Like all things in life it is not for everyone. Sometimes people decide about mindfulness after having been to a talk or a short course. It is helpful to try  the embodied techniques out properly before deciding if it is for you. There are progressive and systematic courses with the lessons best done in the well researched sequence. Mindfulness is not a philosophy– it is a practice that is more easily understood when you experience it for yourself.

What is important, I think, is that everyone has the chance to try it – I see it as a life- skill that you learn about but may not use straight away. Those people who like it can develop their training further – those who don’t will be making a judgment based on their own experience.

I think we all deserve to know about mindfulness because a lot of scientific research is showing that  it is very effective, particularly for managing stress and we all have plenty of that in our lives these days!

What do you see as the future of mindfulness matters?

Now I have my Masters degree in Mindfulness from Oxford University – I am going to help Mindfulness Matters to develop and implement mindfulness programmes with educational and sporting groups in the UK and in Australia.  I am particularly interested in training the school teachers (both secondary and primary levels) and sports coaches in local communities, so they have the chance to develop their own mindfulness toolkit and then help their  young people develop their own mindfulness  tool kit.

As a mindfulness consultant I am very keen that schools and local communities have access to a spiralling mindfulness curriculum. I have developed a set of mindfulness programmes for schools and local sports groups to implement over 5 years so that once children have learned the basic skills they learn how to apply them in particular situations they may face at school, in sport and later on in life in the workplace. The Welcome Institute is giving at least £6 million to Oxford University and several other Universities, in the UK,  do a big scientific research programme  on mindfulness and well being in adolescence ( the MYRIAD project) looking at the results with pupils and teachers.

I have been invited to help train some of the school teachers for that research project and will  link that to the Mindfulness Matters courses that we will be running with teachers, sports coaches, parents and my open course participants in Australia and the UK.

How can I learn more about mindfulness?

The book I would recommend to start with is ‘Mindfulness: a practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world’ by Professor Mark Williams and Danny Penman. It is the textbook for all the courses I run and is very easy to read. It gives a guide for the 8 session programme, so you can follow this programme to start with if you cannot find a local course.