The term ‘mindfulness’ is much spoken about these days, especially in relation to mental health and wellbeing. But what does it really mean? Mindfulness generally relates to a meditation practice that has its origins in Buddhism. It is thought that the Buddha was practicing mindfulness when he gained enlightenment, and it is one of the key meditation practices for Buddhists.
However, the practice of mindfulness has been taken by psychologists out of its Buddhist origins and used as a technique to help with gaining better mental health and having a healthier and calmer outlook on life. Mindfulness is often used to help treat anxiety and depression, and is recommended by the NICE guidelines for people with depression to help prevent further depressive episodes.
How do I practice mindfulness?
To practice mindfulness is really quite simple. You just need to be aware of what is going on in your body, with your thoughts and emotions, and keep your focus trained on a meditative object such as your breath. Find a quiet place to sit, where you won’t be disturbed for a few minutes, close your eyes, and pay attention to your breathing. Notice the air coming in through your nose or your mouth. Notice how it feels, notice how your chest or abdomen rise and fall with each breath. Notice how your body feels different with each in-breath and out-breath. This seemingly simple practice is actually quite hard to do. You will notice that as you try to focus on your breath, your mind will start to wander. You’ll start thinking about things you need to be doing, planning your next activity, or wondering if you are doing it right. Also, you might start to notice feelings coming to the surface. Maybe you will feel anxious, or notice some sadness connected to an event that happened earlier in the day. When thoughts and feelings arise, all you need to do is to notice that they are there. Give them a label “I’m feeling sad” or “I’m planning” then bring your attention back to your breath. Do this gently and kindly. With regular practice, this will become easier, and you will find that your times of practicing mindfulness will become calmer and you will feel more peaceful. Also, you will start to notice how your mind wanders. You’ll notice the patterns of your thoughts and your emotions and you’ll become less entangled with them. After a while, you’ll start to realise that while you have thoughts and emotions, your are not your thoughts and emotions. They are part of you, but you don’t have to become consumed by them.
By having a regular practice of mindfulness, you can learn to regulate your emotions, and be able to tolerate more difficult emotions easier. You’ll also have more control over your thoughts and be able to step back from your thoughts when they are leading you to dark places. With time, mindfulness can help you become more compassionate to yourself and the others in your life.
And for how long?
It is often asked how often and for how long we should practice mindfulness meditation. The answer to this really depends on how much you want to commit to your wellbeing. A regular, daily practice is important. So try to practice every day if you can. In terms of duration, start small with about 5 – 10 minutes each day. Then start to work up to longer durations. Most people find that it will take about 20 minutes for the mind to really start to settle, and it is after that you will gain some of the deeper benefits of mindfulness. If you can, set aside 40-60 minutes each day to practice mindfulness. However, as we live in a busy world, setting aside this amount of time can be difficult, so if you can’t spare it, or just don’t want to do so much, stay with a smaller amount and keep your practice regular.
Mindfulness is a very important meditation practice that is accessible to all. The are many free videos and podcasts that will guide you in your practice, and many course available to teach it.
Combining mindfulness with psychotherapy is a very powerful way to understand your inner world and to make significant changes in your way of being in the world.
Simon Cassar is an experienced integrative existential psychotherapist and mindfulness practitioner providing long and short-term psychotherapy to both individuals and couples in Hove and Lewes.
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