Mindfulness - some typical questions answered

      What is Mindfulness?

     What is meditation?   (includes a simple meditation exercise) 

     How does training in Mindfulness work?

     What's the difference between Mindfulness meditation and reflection?

     Why are Mindfulness skills useful?

     Will it work for me?

     Is meditation suitable for everyone?

     How much time will I need to spend on learning the skills?

     Will I be required to adopt any kind of belief system to practice Mindfulness?

     I  am a therapist - can I learn Mindfulness to use with my clients?


 

    Watching this Mindfulness meditation video may also assist in gaining an
    understanding of its potential for you ...

 


What is Mindfulness?

The simple meaning of Mindfulness is 'remembering to be aware' - whether it be during meditation, or while doing anything,
anywhere, any time.

There are, however, specific techniques and ideas which, collectively, we refer to as 'Mindfulness', and when these are applied
in meditation practice, they have the potential to increase the beneficial outcomes of that practice enormously. Below I go
into more detail about why this is so.

Additionally, the logical and highly practical nature of Mindfulness can also positively influence our day-to-day activities away from the meditation cushion (or chair).

While the techniques and related concepts of Mindfulness meditation are associated with a variety of both ancient and
contemporary modalities for wellbeing, it's generally considered a method taught and practiced in the context of
Buddhism, which is a non-sectarian philosophy founded in India around 400BC by the Buddha Shakyamuni.

Below I have incorporated a more detailed explanation of Mindfulness ...                                                                                                                                                                                                                 
 
... but let's pause for a moment to take care of something important in understanding Mindfulness.

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What is meditation?

Before discussing more about Mindfulness it's important to explain a few basic things about meditation as it may be easier to understand why Mindfulness is a useful concept and how it's applied.

The first thing to resolve is the idea that meditation is about emptying the mind of thoughts and/or creating some kind of mental oblivion. For most of us, the capacity to fully still the mind is beyond our grasp and so when we come to try meditation without proper guidance, we may think we've failed if the thoughts just keep coming and so we give up.

The concept of meditation is based on the fact that the typical mind is full of busy thoughts that are difficult to silence. Hence, it teaches us how to deal with this by applying concentration exercises to tame the mental activity. It sounds easy but is difficult to do - at first. We have to accept in coming to meditation looking for a solution, that it will take a little time and application of these exercises to overcome both the chatter of our minds, as well as the idea that it's impossible to find any peace from it. Importantly, it is the impact of our attitudes to what we experience in meditation as much as the exercises themselves that brings about what we may think of as a good outcome from meditating, and it is here that Mindfulness comes in on the scene.

Before going there, however, let's remember that rather than being a head-clearing exercise, meditation is about acknowledging our hectic mental activity in order to deal effectively with it. This involves us developing a mental alertness to the chaos going on in our heads, and then focusing the mind in ways that allow the busy-ness to gently abate without resistance. In brief, it is our resistance to our thoughts - our attempts to push or force them out of our mind as we search for stillness that may actually reinforce them. Allow the flow of acceptance, non-judgement and non-attachment to wash them from our mind. Applying this attitude will help the mind become calm.  

There is nothing mystical about this most basic of meditation techniques from which all others have evolved. It is a fundamental discipline, a training of the mind which makes it able to focus at will, and hence become calm and still. Meditation training supports you in opening up to the realisation that the true nature of your mind - that is, this calmness and stillness - is perhaps more accessible than you imagined.  

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The normal state of mind is not the true nature of mind
Most
people find it difficult to meditate because the brain is habitually distracted, passing from one thought to the next. It gets caught up in the past, in thought-stories, or planning for the future - all because, among other things, it wants simply to be satisfied and seeks seemingly never-ending fulfilment, usually through the senses.

While this is an experience which is normal for more of us, meditation time is not intended for 'normal thinking'! It is, in fact, time away from this habitual response to our desires for the 'next and better thing' and an attempt to be truly in the present moment, from where the brain can rest and be able to improve its overall function.

The other important characteristic of the mind to be aware of is its inherent true nature of calmness, which lies under all this
chaos of thought and distraction - like the sky that's present beneath clouds, pollution or even night's darkness. The sky goes on forever - always clear, endlessly bright.

It's important to remember this true nature of our mind because if we know, through our personal experience, that this nature exists, we can also expect meditation practice to ultimately work, and to know why. We can free ourselves, if even for a moment, from stress and depression, because we know there is something much more authentic to us than this anguish.

If we know we can tap into this space beyond our thoughts through meditation, we can also be more patient and persistent in seeking it out. By revealing it to ourselves as we practice, our knowledge and confidence grows that when given the chance, the passage of thoughts will slow, and the mind will become quieter and still.  

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How to meditate in a simple way

As I've mentioned, meditation is about being truly alive in the present and recognising the benefits this gives us.

The process of meditation is based around building a capacity for mental concentration - usually on a single object such as  
our breath. It is this concentration and its refinement over time that essentially delivers all the things we may be looking for
from meditation, like mental clarity, calmness, stress management, lower blood pressure, and so on.

Just try it for a moment:

1)  Sit down, take a breath. Close your eyes and turn your attention inward.

2)  Allow your attention now to drift onto focusing on your breath. Let your shoulders drop; take another breath.

3)  Mentally watch the breath as it moves in and out of your upper body and stomach ... in and out ... in and out.
     Notice if your breathing is tight or free ... just notice, and continue to breathe.
     Try to maintain your focus on the breath for a few minutes and allow yourself to become familiar with how this feels.
     You may notice that in order to stay focused on the breath, you also need to stay in the present moment.

4)  After a while of doing this your mind may begin to wander - away from the focus on the breath, and hence away from the
     present moment.
     If this happen, just notice that your mind has been distracted and guide it back to your process of watching the breath,
     Bring your attention back to the breath's process of moving in and out of your body - in the present moment.

5)  When you wish to cease the exercise, gently open your eyes, take a breath, and check on how you feel - maybe you feel
     different, maybe you don't. Just notice.

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While an exercise like this might be useful for times of high stress, in order for its benefits to be maximised, it really needs to become a regular feature of your life.

Now, that may be all when and good, but full and complete focus and concentration, even for a moment, is something most of us find very difficult. Well intentioned, we sit down, close our eyes and the brain seems to flood with distracting thoughts, which can become even more troublesome if we try and push them away. We wonder how on earth can we possibly expect to meditate - to clear our mind - with so much chatter going on.                                                                                                                                                                                                                  BACK TO TOP 
... enter Mindfulness

So, we need something to help us come to terms with the fact that the mind is naturally full of thoughts that want to go their
own way and have us accompany them. We need to be able to apply techniques to help us tame these thoughts and allow
us to maintain our calming focus on the object of our meditation to find the present moment, stay there as long as possible
in order to gain the benefits.

As mentioned above, 'success' in meditation is also attained by looking at our attitudes to what we experience when we try to meditate as much as the results of undertaking the actual process of concentration. This is because it is often our attitudes, emotions and self-talk that takes us away from the beautiful and refreshing process of simply focusing the mind on a single purpose.

Mindfulness techniques encourage and help us observe and learn how our mind works. A good way of describing Mindfulness is that is it the deliberate act of paying attention to the present moment, free of the judgement which usually accompanies contemplation or observation of our thoughts and other processes. It can be wholly practiced and applied free from ideological or cultural trappings, and does not involve visualisation techniques.

In essence, Mindfulness teaches us to calmly anticipate the inevitable coming and going of thoughts, emotions, sensations, etc. so they can be released without our attachment to them, and allowed to abate with our wanting to control or manipulate them in any way. We grow in self-awareness and in a basic realisation that these are not permanent fixtures of our mind or, indeed, of our identity.

Through Mindfulness we learn valuable things about ourselves from observing how we react, for example, to the
dissatisfaction of sitting positions, or the agitation that arises because of our resistance to noises around us when we are
trying to concentrate. Mindfulness helps us notice and form insights about our emotions so we can manage and appreciate
them for what they really are - something fleeting, changing and the subject only of our attitudes which are often formed by external influences. Mindfulness allows us to grow in precious awareness of all of this through non-conditional observation of ourselves and how we live from moment to moment.

It is an important aspect of Mindfulness that as we observe all of this about ourselves that we do so applying non-judgment to what we see. learn and know about ourselves. Without an agreement with ourself to try to abandon judgment of ourselves and our practice, effectiveness of Mindfulness techniques is not really possible.     

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How does training in Mindfulness work?

In Mindfulness meditation training we begin by first learning to observe simple processes such as the breath (as outlined above) and the feelings that are present in our physical body. From the outset, this simplification and focusing of mental tasks slows the mind and allows it to relax, engendering immediate stillness and calm. It is the ability to observe and recognise this relatively quick response that proves perhaps that the true nature of our mind - represented by the calmness - is but a mere breath away. And being apparently so accessible, this knowledge, borne of our observation, provides us with encouragement and tenacity in our meditation practice.

From this point we learn ways to develop our observation skills and enhance how we apply the benefits. By acquiring knowledge of some of the related concepts of Mindfulness, such as impermanence and interconnection, we begin to apply our Mindfulness in all areas of life, not just whilst meditating, with often amazingly useful results.

How to learn Mindfulness

Many people learn meditation in a group class, which is very helpful as the shared experience seems to inspire and create
more discipline. We also get to ask questions and hear others' experience, from which we can really grow in our
understanding of what we are trying to achieve. 

In traditional Mindfulness training, this awareness is studied in four basic areas:

1) Mindfulness of the Body – observation of one's physical form, its movement and processes (such as breathing, walking,
    stretching);

2) Mindfulness of Feelings – observation of both mental and physical sensations or impressions, and whether they are, for
    example, pleasant, unpleasant or neutral;

3) Mindfulness of Mind – observing and recognising states of mind, moods or emotions;   

4) Mindfulness of Mind Objects – observing thoughts and categories of thought.

The overall objective of Mindfulness is to study how our mind works and then use this information to apply practical ways we
can maintain our focus on the present moment. What we also gain in the process is a much greater self-awareness, which is
highly valuable for all areas of our life.  
     

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What is the difference between Mindfulness meditation and reflection?

Reflection is the act of stepping back away from the normal day-to-day activities in order to think clearly about them. It's
often the first act of awareness that the mind needs to relax in order to work efficiently, and it can't do this if it's constantly
being asked to react.

Also, reflection is a way of calming the mind before commencing a session of meditation - especially if you are coming from
a busy or stressful time when it's very difficult to just go straight into your meditation. It can also be a way of practicing some
of the techniques of meditation when it's not possible to carry out a normal sitting practice, such as when in public, facing a
stressful situation, or going for a walk.

For more on Reflection - especially its use in business - see the Resources page.
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Why are Mindfulness meditation skills useful?

Through the increased awareness, concentration and insights we learn from Mindfulness, we potentially improve all aspects
of our lives. We communicate better, work more efficiently, and can genuinely relax. This is due in part to the potential of
Mindfulness to allow us to observe experiences free of distortion, aversion or fantasy, and the often intense judgemental
attitudes we attach to them which increase our anxiety about them.

As Mindfulness encourages us to cultivate more skilful mental states, we may also become more energetic and creative,
connect with our passions and feel a much greater sense of wellbeing overall.

Being truly in the present rather than operating on ‘auto-pilot’ means we have greater control over the outcome of situations 
of all kinds – especially those involving stress. Further, we may use Mindfulness skills to overcome cravings, deep moods or
worry, and through them we tap into stillness and self-compassion.

They can also be applied to potentially improve the management of chronic pain, serious depression and acute anxiety.
Studies on the effects of meditation carried out since the 1970s also show it’s very good for our general physical health.

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Will it work for me?

As with any new activity intended to impact your wellbeing, the success of otherwise of meditation will depend on a number of
factors. While simple, meditation is not necessarily easy and the effect of your meditation sessions will vary simply because
your state of mind and/or body feelings will vary from day to day. While these changes, in themselves, can actually become
part of your meditation practice, you will need some discipline to establish a regular practice that produces the usual
benefits. Having said that, the more stand-alone Mindfulness principles demonstrated by through its techniques are very
useful for observing and dealing with daily challenges.     

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Is meditation suitable for everyone? 

While it's rare, some people do not find meditation a comfortable activity and will thus be recommended not to continue with
it. By "uncomfortable" I mean, a mental uneasiness which is not
to be confused with the normal experience of meditation
where there are various kinds of discomfort associated with
trying to still the usual chaotic nature of our mind or because we
may be sitting for extended periods without a lot of body movement.

The kind of discomfort I'm referring to here is things like increased anxiety or an intense feeling of disassociation from
reality. And anyone with a psychotic illness should, generally speaking, never attempt meditation. Further, those who suffer
trauma to do with their body should also take care with the process as, for example, 'mindfulness of body' is a main
technique used in Mindfulness and may engender emotions and responses which cause upset and even relapse.   

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How much time will I have to spend on learning the skills? 

As with the learning anything new you'll need to apply effort and be tenacious with your practice of meditation if you're to
gain its greatest benefits. This means that once having learned them, you will ideally set aside some time daily (even
beginning with five to ten minutes and then building on the duration) to become more familiar with Mindfulness skills and
gain their immediate results. This is what basically constitutes a foundation for a regular practice but any time at all spent on
Mindfulness-based exercises will also contribute to some degree of positive outcome.

There is also be room for flexibility: the underlying meaning of Mindfulness is sometimes as much about the active decision
you make to be aware as actually 'doing it'. But for it to be assimilated so it has a positive impact anywhere, anytime you will
need to have the basic skills firmly in place, and this takes practise.  

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Will I be required to adopt any belief system in practicing Mindfulness? 

No. Mindfulness practice is effective regardless of belief system or ideology, etc.  

As with any similar exploration, an open mind is essential when learning Mindfulness. This is because we are inviting discoveries about ourselves and taking on challenges that meditation practice may present us.

You may also have to accept that new, more productive habits may replace older and/or less-appropriate ones and that this
may involve challenges because you have adopted changes in your lifestyle (regardless of the fact they are welcome).
Some degree of willingness to be self-disciplined is helpful and also needed to produce sustainable results.

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I am a therapist ... can I use Mindfulness as a way of helping my clients?

The short answer is, yes, of course you can, but with some qualification.

Increasingly mental health care workers of various disciplines are looking to understand how Mindfulness can be of benefit to
their clients. Please be aware, though, that there are no short cuts to this ... a weekend workshop or short retreat is not really enough to introduce the Mindfulness techniques with your clients when you have little experience in what to expect and help them overcome challenges and obstacles.

I always suggest to my therapist students that they establish a meditation practice themselves first before introducing it to  
clients. The reasons for this are several: first, meditation is thought to be harmless; but as stated above, it is not suitable
for everyone, and even those who have never had any kind of mental illness or similar problem can experience genuine mental discomfort when beginning meditation.

Secondly, if clients have any kind of serious mental illness it's wise to abandon plans to introduce meditation - at least until
they've been stable for a long period. This is especially true for those clients who have any disassociation symptoms or
trauma connected to the physical body, as Mindfulness techniques necessarily focus a lot on the body, its feelings and sensations, etc. as part of assimilating its potential.

Some of the easier exercises, such as simply focusing on the breath or partially using the 'body scan' technique as a decentring exercise are potentially highly beneficial for clients - especially those needing pain management or who suffer depression and/or anxiety. But I highly recommend you supervise this process and are fully aware of any discomfort the client may experience during the process or as a result of doing the exercises.

Establishing your own Mindfulness meditation practice will also give you first-hand insights into, for example, the  
unpredictability of one's personal experience of meditation and how much the challenging process of non-self-judgement is
key to the success of applying Mindfulness techniques. Furthermore, working knowledge is required of the various related
concepts related to Mindfulness, and experience of how and when to apply them to help ensure that a individual practice is  
as successful as possible.

Having said all that, it is also interesting to note and very positive that a lot of people can relate logically to Mindfulness and will want to apply its ideas to their work. But the key to success of teaching and promoting the use of Mindfulness is found in a commitment to its practice. If nothing else, this also means the sometimes difficult act of introducing Mindfulness to clients will be easier. Regardless, as a Mindfulness practitioner yourself, you will become aware you can find all sorts of ways of incorporating the concepts - even without the need for clients to practice it themselves.
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