A recent article titled “The health benefits of meditation and being mindful” by Dr Craig Hassed, Senior Lecturer at Monash University, outlined the growing body of evidence that supports the value of mindfulness, the most scientifically investigated form of meditation.
Evidence suggests that learning to pay attention may be the most important skill we ever learn. Put simply, “Mindfulness is a mental discipline that involves training attention. It teaches us how to use the mind in a different way and to focus on the things that are most useful and helpful in our lives thus helping us to live more consciously and fully”.
Mindfulness has been shown to assist many functions including short term memory, information processing, decision making and emotion regulation. This is in contrast to stress, which effectively inhibits these functions. The applications of mindfulness and meditation continue to expand. As Dr Hassed reported, preventing relapse in depression has been the application of most interest to date.
Like many things in life, attention is a skill that you can learn and fine-tune. Typically, we are frequently on ‘automatic pilot’ much of the time and unaware of moment-to moment experience. Research and clinical practice has shown that attention can be developed with regular practice. In essence, Mindfulness is not a method of distracting ourselves, but rather tuning in – most people perform better when they are most mindful, when they are in ‘the zone’. The anxious, distressed or depressed mind is the distracted state, hence the negative impact upon performance. The aim of meditation and mindfulness is not relaxation, although it is often a ‘side-effect’.
Mindfulness involves learning to pay attention and “developing an attitude of openness, interest and acceptance”. The more we struggle with thoughts and feelings we find painful, difficult or uncomfortable, we are actually giving them power. That is, we feed them with attention and in turn, create greater distress. Thus, it is important to become aware of thoughts and feelings while being non-reactive and non-judgmental. This is the first part of learning to be free of them. Dr Hassed states
It is not a method of distraction but rather a method of engagement. It is the stressed, anxious, angry and depressed state of mind that is the distracted state – mindfulness is the remedy.
Learning to be mindful takes time and regular practice, but can make a real difference to so many aspects of our lives. You might like to try the following exercises to increase attention and mindfulness.
15 seconds to 5 minutes per day, good between activities
This exercise can take anywhere from a few seconds to a couple of minutes. It is a short punctuation in a busy day between finishing one activity and starting another, for example before starting the car, beginning a meal, before an interview, or between patients. It helps to “clean the slate” making us fresher for the next activity.
The steps and principles are the same as ‘The Full Stop’ but just much shorter. Be aware of the body and allow the posture to be balanced and relaxed but upright. Let the body relax generally by taking one or two deep breaths and breathing the tension out. The let the breath settle and allow the attention to rest with it. Then be aware of the environment and the sounds in it as they come and go. Do not prolong the comma past what is appropriate for that moment, then move quietly into whatever awaits you.
If you are in a busy office and it would be conspicuous to close your eyes just keep them open but rest them on a point as you practice.
The Full Stop
5 to 30 minutes per day
Sit in a chair so that the spine is upright and balanced but relaxed. Have the body symmetrical and allow the eyes to gently close.
Now, move the attention gently through each step. Be conscious of the body and its connection with the chair. Feel the feet on the floor. Notice if the feet are tense. If so allow them to relax if they want to. Similarly, be aware of the legs and allow them to relax if they wish, and so gently move up through each part of the body; the stomach, hands, arms, shoulders, neck and face. If tension or discomfort remains, just notice the presence of tension or discomfort without judgment.
Now take in a deep breath and slowly and gently let the breath out. Repeat this twice more then just allow the breathing to settle into its own natural rhythm without having to control it in any way. If you observe a tendency to try and control the breath, just impartially notice that. Simply be conscious of the breath as the air flows in and out of the nose. If thoughts come to your awareness allow them to come and go without judgment and let the attention return to the breathing. There is no need to struggle with the activity of the mind, nor even wish that it wasn’t there. Like ‘trains of thought’, just let them come and go.
After a time, let the attention move to the listening. Hear whatever sounds there are to hear without having to analyse the sounds. Once again, if thoughts come let them pass. If the mind becomes distracted, for example by listening to some mental commentary or chatter, simply notice and return to the sounds as a gentle way of returning to the present moment.
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