Mindfulness classes in Westminster, schoolchildren meditating in lessons, grown adults poring over ‘zen’ colouring books, mindfulness-based therapies adopted by the NHS, meditation in the workplace… there’s no escaping the mindfulness phenomenon.
And then there’s the continued success of meditation apps like Headspace, which has been downloaded over 11 million times.
The popularity of mindfulness is showing no signs of dwindling. Yet a surprising number of people still assume the practice has something to do with sitting on a rock in yoga pants chanting ‘om’.
True: its methods are derived from ancient Asian contemplative practices, particularly Buddhist meditation. But mindfulness is a secular concept – and one backed by a growing body of promising scientific research.
Studies have suggested that mindfulness can help with everything from depression, anxiety, stress and self-esteem to chronic pain, relationship difficulties, creativity and productivity.
A recent study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison also found that mindfulness can help with fear of childbirth and postpartum depression.
No magic wand
Of course, it is not some magical elixir that is going to cure all the world’s ills overnight – and there is no evidence to suggest mindfulness is right for everyone; research is still in its infancy.
As founder of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre Professor Mark Williams points out: “Mindfulness isn’t the answer to everything, and it’s important that our enthusiasm doesn’t run ahead of the evidence.”
But those with an aversion to phrases and words such as ‘self-help’, ‘spirituality’ and ‘finding inner peace’, could be missing out on something hugely beneficial to their wellbeing if they write it off as some kind of New Age mumbo-jumbo.
With that in mind, we’ve put together an introduction to mindfulness to help you integrate it into your daily life.
What is mindfulness?
Put simply, mindfulness is the awareness that arises when you deliberately pay attention to what is happening in the present moment, both externally and in your mind and body, without casting judgement.
Where does it come from?
Inspired by ancient Asian practices, John Kabat-Zinn began teaching his secular Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course (MBSR) to patients at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in the late 1970s. Its aim was to help patients manage chronic pain and its associated stresses, with a range of mindfulness meditation techniques.
Professor Mark Williams, Zindel Segal and John Teasdale adapted the course in the ‘90s, combining MBSR methods with elements of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to develop Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), which helps patients prone to depression by building resilience.
How does it work?
Mindfulness can be practiced formally, through meditation, or informally by incorporating present moment awareness into everyday life – such as when walking, having a conversation or even brushing your teeth.
A typical sitting meditation would involve sitting upright in a chair with feet firmly on the ground while focusing on the movement of the breath in and out of the body, allowing thoughts to come and go and returning to the breath the moment mind wandering is noted.
You can even practice mindfulness in the most stressful of situations: being sandwiched in between hordes of strangers on a crowded tube, or while rushing to a make-or-break interview.
Mindfulness apps like Calm, Buddhify and The Mindfulness App are all mindfulness guides that live in the place you’re most likely to use them: on your smartphone. These are ideal introductions to mindfulness and can help you learn to meditate anytime, anywhere.
What to expect
Just as you wouldn’t expect to emerge from a few sessions at the gym with the body of an elite athlete, you can’t expect to materialise from a week of meditation practice with all the calm and equanimity of the Dalai Lama.
Also, mindfulness is not about striving for an end goal or achieving some higher state of consciousness. In fact, it’s only when you stop seeking an answer, and learn to accept each moment as it is, that the real changes can begin to occur.
Reports from practitioners include a greater clarity of mind, an ability to react to situations with a calmer and more reasoned approach, a compassionate and less-judgmental attitude towards others and oneself, and a greater sense of contentment.
Mindfulness and men
Statistics show men are far less likely to seek help for mental health problems than women and less likely to discuss or confront their emotions. This coupled with the latest statistics on male suicide (the biggest killer of men under the age of 45), suggest the male population in particular could be missing out on the potentially transformative powers of mindfulness.
Whyit could pay to be a mindful man
From confidence and creativity to productivity and performance in the workplace, there are myriad ways mindfulness could be beneficial – but here are just a few which could be of particular relevance to men:
Depression: Depression is a very real issue for British men: the latest figures show that male suicide accounted for 76% of all suicides in the UK (2014).
A recent meta-analysis of MBCT found that mindfulness is an effective treatment option that can help prevent the recurrence of major depression. Across nine trials, taking the time to relapse into account, people who received MBCT were 31% less likely to relapse within 60-weeks compared with those who did not receive MBCT.
The latest research, which looked at people with suicidal tendencies, also found that after an MBCT course, there was an uncoupling from suicidal thought, and that even if a patient felt depressed after the course, it didn’t trigger suicidal thoughts. MBCT founder Professor Williams revealed these findings in an interview for The Mindful Summit in 2015.
Stress: Our fast-paced existence is stressful for both men and women. But stress can have a unique impact on men. An Australian study discovered men tend to respond to stress more aggressively than women, adopting a “fight-or-flight” reaction in comparison to the “tend-and-befriend” response in women.
Research using MRI scans has shown that after an eight-week course of mindfulness practice, the amygdala (the ‘fight or flight’ centre of the brain, associated with fear and emotion) appears to shrink. At the same time, the pre-frontal cortex, linked to awareness, concentration and decision-making, appears to grow, showing mindfulness can have an impact on the physiology of the brain.
The result? Men could spend less time in the ‘fight or flight’ part of the nervous system and more time with the ‘rest and digest’ (a.k.a. the parasympathetic system), which slows the heart rate and breath, and reduces blood pressure.
Relationships: Single men alert: women find mindfulness an attractive trait in men, according to research. The study, conducted by a team of Australian scientists, analysed a speed-dating experiment in which participants were asked to rate how physically attractive each person was before meeting them. Before the dating began, participants completed a questionnaire designed to measure mindfulness. The findings revealed that women much preferred the more ‘mindful’ men.