Tim O'Rahilly Life Coaching

Posts Tagged ‘mindfulness’

Blue Monday Survival Tips

As the third Monday in January, today is designated as Blue Monday, the most depressing day of the year.

Following all the merrymaking in December, January is usually cold, grey and bleak. You set off to work in the dark and you return home in the dark. All the overspending and overindulgence of Christmas starts to come back and bite us. We attempt to eat healthy, spend less and drink little. The credit card bills are dropping through the letterbox and the rest of the month still seems far away. Energy levels are low, sadness and depression descend and a lack of motivation puts paid to those resolutions, thus adding guilt to the mix.

This is no time for lectures so here are just a few simple ideas to inspire you to rise above the gloom:

  1. Keep those resolutions simple, realistic and achievable.
  2. Make the most of any natural light by going out for a lunchtime stroll.
  3. Eat a balanced diet avoiding short term stimulants such as coffee, sugar or alcohol.
  4. Get plenty of good quality sleep.
  5. Build some physical activity into every day.
  6. Change your physical environment at work or at home. Avoid shadows and work near windows.
  7. Get creative. Write, draw, paint, colour, sew, knit, craft, dance, SING!
  8. Engage with others. Listen more than you talk. Laugh a lot.
  9. Have music in your life.
  10. Read for enjoyment, for relaxation, for development.

No Day HAS TO BE blue!

Mindful Monday: Take a Breath

A couple of weeks ago I talked about some simple techniques for focusing the mind (Season of Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness) Those techniques took advantage of nature and the beautiful Autumn season. Today I want to describe a simple, easy to master, technique which also dispels the notion that you need to set aside long periods of time for mindfulness meditation.

The Three Minute Breathing Space.3

First minute: First of all you need to focus on your location. Whether you are sitting on a cold garden bench or a warm fireside chair just pay close attention to where you are and what bodily sensations you are feeling.

Second minute: Now shift your attention to your breathing. Be aware of it but if your mind wanders (perfectly normal) first acknowledge where it has drifted too and then gently pull it back to the present moment.

Third minute: Once your attention has settled on your breathing, the next minute is spent moving your attention to the effects of your breathing has on your body as a whole. Notice the feeling of your lungs filling and emptying and the way that you chest and ribs expand and contract.

That’s all there is to it. Three minutes of your time and a breathing space just for you. Let it become a regular daily activity. Go on, give it a go.

Season of Mists and Mellow Mindfulness

Mindful Monday: Autumn (with apologies to John Keats).7ed7db5c469d22bc3a21b807d664f8e8

After a busy Summer season, Autumn/Fall is the ideal time to slow down and still our minds. In a feast for the senses we are made aware of our surroundings. Rich leaf colours or flocks of migrating birds flood the sight. The sound of leaves underfoot while frost glistens on the grass and mist pools in hollows and along waterways. All these things call us to be mindful of our surroundings and our place in the here and now.

Mindfulness not only helps to keep us grounded but it has proven benefits to both mental and physical health. Simple techniques can teach us to focus in on the present moment rather than shutting it out as more traditional meditation might do.

Perhaps the simplest of these techniques is the walking meditation. Just take a leisurely stroll even if you only allow an extra few minutes going to or from work. Be aware of those things which stimulate the senses. What is it which catches your eye or triggers some memory or sensation? Don’t try to change these thoughts, just observe them and be aware of the feelings that they create in you.

Another simple technique involves using just one of your senses. While you are out walking or even when sitting relaxing quietly, be aware of all the sounds around you. Outdoors it may be the sounds of rustling leaves, tree branches moving in the wind, birdsong or flowing water. Try shifting your attention just to the area in front of you. Now to the area behind you. Try shifting it to the right and then the left of you. How do the sounds change?  Of course these natural sounds change in time and so are different at any one moment. This is a great way to attend to the present moment before it moves on to the next.

Try these simple things and let me know how you get on.

Mindful Monday: Men and Depression Pt. 2

Signs of Depression.depression-symptoms-men-400x400

Welcome to this second part of my look at the serious issue of anxiety, depression and suicide in men. In the first part we looked at some shocking statistics and some vague reasons why there is a specific male problem. Before delving too deeply into reasons and solutions I thought it might be useful to consider just what depression is and how it particularly manifests itself in men.

Most of us have experienced periods of time when we have felt down, miserable, or depressed. This can often be attributed to a known event, cause or trigger but it does not really dominate our lives, seldom lasts long and is soon forgotten.

For some however, the feelings do not go away. The depression may continue for weeks or months or the feelings may become deeper. This can leave the victim feeling very much stuck in a rut or in a downward spiral and unable to lift themselves out of it. By this time they will feel it’s beginning to affect every area of their life and even before others recognise that there is a problem, they may have feelings of guilt about it which simply fuel the deepening depression.

What is going on in your mind will start to have physical consequences and also lead to behavioural changes. Where the mind and body are concerned the problem may remain purely personal, but once behavioural changes begin it will only be a matter of time before others notice that you have a problem.

Depressed people will recognise some, most, or all of the following feelings. It becomes increasingly difficult to find joy in anything. For much of the time you may feel down, unhappy, miserable, sad or depressed and those feelings just will not go away. For some the feelings are worse at particular times of the day, especially first thing in the morning when you are facing the day ahead. You may find it difficult to concentrate on anything and you may lack motivation. There may also be feelings of guilt, even about things which have nothing to do with you. You may lose interest in social activities and start to lose touch with friends. As you become more pessimistic you may start to feel hopeless, overwhelmed and even suicidal.

These problems of the mind will often manifest themselves in physical conditions. Most depressed people have difficulty sleeping, either in getting to sleep or staying asleep. Often this results in a broken sleep pattern or the habit of waking up very early which of course leads to physical tiredness. Depression can also affect your weight in one of two ways. Some people ‘comfort eat’ and gain weight while others cannot eat and start to lose weight. Many depressed people also experience a loss of interest in sex.

Of course as these physical symptoms become more noticeable they are added to the growing list of anxieties so increasing the bad feelings.

As things either get worse or just go on for longer, the depression will start to affect your behaviour. This is when it is possible that others will notice a problem even if they don’t recognise what it is. Your poor concentration may lead to mistakes at home or at work as you lose focus. If you start to worry about more things you may also become quieter than usual or even withdrawn. You may become more irritable than usual and you may even begin to complain about vague physical ailments such as headaches etc.

Man-with-depressionAfter a time, your personal hygiene, appearance and tidiness may fall victim to the depression. You may begin skipping showers, not shaving, not washing your hair or brushing your teeth. Shirts may go unironed or even unwashed. At home you may lose interest in cooking, cleaning, or changing the bed sheets.

Where anxiety features in the depression there are additional symptoms such as feeling ‘on the edge’ or constantly worried that things will go wrong. You may become fearful of unknown problems occurring and will find it increasingly hard to go out or to face people. Anxiety also causes its own set of physical problems which may include sweating, palpitations, breathlessness, shakiness, dry mouth, stomach churning or even diarrhoea.

So far the symptoms I have described a fairly general and although there is no specific diagnosis of ‘male depression’, it is quite clear that some symptoms are more common in men than in women. These include increased irritability or temper. There is often a feeling of losing control or you may increase risk-taking. There may be aggression and men are three times more likely than women to commit suicide.

In many ways it is not the symptoms of depression which are different for men so much as their attitude towards it and their coping mechanisms. These often in the long term lead to not coping at all. For many men drugs and/or alcohol become a means of self-medication rather than admitting to any problems or talking about them. Personality does not seem to be a great indicator for depression since, although shy men may be more likely to become depressed, it can also affect the strongest of men. Depression has affected many famous and successful men, even some who have famously spent all their time making the rest of us laugh. Sir Winston Churchill could hardly be called a shy man and yet he suffered deep depression which he called his ‘black dog’.

It is often the classic male attitudes which exacerbate the illness. These attitudes prevent us from talking to loved ones or to health professionals and so we do not get the help which is needed. Many men feel that if they tell their partners, family members or colleagues, that these will be unsympathetic.

For too many men it is their very masculinity which gets called into question. Men can be competitive, ambitious or concerned with power, control or success. This of course makes it much harder to admit to feeling in any way fragile or in need of help. Whatever the perceived reason most men will feel that they must sort the problem out for themselves.

For some men work itself can become the coping strategy, but focusing on that can cause conflict in other areas, especially relationships.

The drug or alcohol route of course becomes destructive itself in the long run. This path can lead to addiction which can then result in unpleasant, irresponsible, reckless, dangerous, or even self-destructive behaviour.

Hopefully this delivers some understanding as to what depression is. Next time I will take a look at some of the causes of anxiety, depression and suicide in far too many men.

Mindful Monday: Green Spaces for Well-being.

8One of the noticeable effects of modern urban living is a well documented gap in the well-being of the rich and poor. Many would argue that the wealth gap leads to a health gap, particularly regarding mental health, and that this will only get worse if left unchecked. A recent study from the Center for Research on Environment, Society and Health, of Edinburgh and Glasgow Universities seems to suggest a way forward in closing this gap.

It appears that living within easy reach of a decent park or other green space can drastically reduce the gap in well-being. The research suggests that the reduction may be as much as 40 per cent. In particular it may be that having access to such spaces locally can improve our mental well-being. The researchers used the data from the European Quality of Life Survey which charts the responses from over 21,000 urban dwellers across 34 European nations. Academics analysed the data by comparing economic status and mental well-being against ease of access to five different neighbourhood facilities and services.

The findings clearly showed that it was only the access to recreational green space3bb00ca005aa3b699c18fb9d8c3afacfs which could be linked to any narrowing of the inequalities of well-being. These findings were published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. We are of course all well aware of the feel-good effects of the great outdoors and so these findings should come as no great surprise. The suggestion now is that we should look at our green spaces and use them to reduce the worrying trend of socioeconomic health inequalities.

Further research is needed in order to establish the case for using our green environment locally to reduce inequalities of health, particularly mental health. Such findings would be a huge boost to local and national conservation groups if it can be argued that developing these open spaces would be a worthwhile  investment in a healthier future. Of course you don’t need to wait for the research or the long slow march of political progress to reap the benefits.  Get out and explore your local green spaces. Take the family for a fun afternoon in the local park, or arrange a picnic with a loved one. Even the office lunch break could be a good time to escape with a book and to sit under a tree for a while.

Mindful Monday: Maturity Rules!

Fifty-somethings are the new Middle-aged.

Many artists, writers and philosophers have been inspired by the human life cycle and have presented the various states from birth to death in their own way. One such was the Renaissance artist Titian, who 500 years ago painted his The Three Ages of Man.  Titian looked in allegorical terms at childhood, manhood and old age. This was a time when old age was all about approaching death, but that is no longer the case. I believe it’s time to reassess and to insert a new stage in between ‘manhood’ and old age.

1024px-Tiziano,_tre_età_dell'uomo_01

Fifty is the new middle-age. Just a decade ago, anyone entering their fifties might be thinking of slowing down. It was time to embrace the elasticated waist and the plaid slippers as you began the more sedate Autumn of your life. Things have moved on since then and our traditional view of old age needs to be challenged. The first stage has always about you as a child. The second is the stage of responsibility, with you as a parent. The third stage was usually about you as a grandparent with one foot in the grave.

Of course you may well have reached your fifties and become a grandparent. You could, however, just as easily be the parent of a pre-school child or of a bunch of teenagers. Alternatively the kids may have flown the nest, or they may even have done that and then returned home again. The cost of living, particularly the cost of accommodation, means that huge numbers of twenty-somethings continue to live at home depending on the Bank of Mum & Dad. Cultural changes mean that you may be in a long term relationship, but you are just as likely to be on your second or third marriage. You may have chosen the single life, or you could be back in the dating game.

The biggest changes to contemporary old age are longevity and improved health. With people now living to ages well in excess of eighty, that one foot has been pulled back out of the grave with the prospect of another thirty years or more still to come. Improvements in health and social care mean that we are fitter and healthier in our fifties and now much more in control of our own latter years.

Many fifty-somethings are starting new ventures. Not only are most still working, but this age group are the fastest growing group for new business start-ups. Even in these austere times, this extended employment leads to greater spending power too.

We are swamped with information about how to stay fit and healthy as we grow older, but since we are thinking in terms of mindfulness here, it is your mental well being that I want to look at. If the first stage of life was about you being a child and the second stage was you as a parent then I think the third stage must be about you being you.

Whatever else is going on in your life, whether it involves, work, family, partner, children or business, you now need to make time just for yourself. This starts with a taking good look at all the important areas of your life so that you can see which areas need some improvement. A great tool to help with this is the Wheel of Life which I have described in detail elsewhere. Whether or not you use the wheel you should divide your life up into some or all of the following areas: Work, finances, home, family, creativity, spirituality, health and fitness, relaxation, social life/friends, love and romance. Give each area a score out of ten so that you can highlight those areas that need development.

Don’t be scared to get help with any weak areas or challenges. Call on your GP, maybe access a life coach or therapist. If you have financial worries get expert help from an accountant or even one of the financial charities. If you have relationship challenges then try to sort them out before they become a serious problem.

Make sure that you build ‘me time’ into each and every day. Get back in touch with the real you or with the you that you always wanted to be. Whether you want to grow old gracefully or disgracefully, make sure that you are doing it on your own terms.

Mindful Monday : Dance Like nobody’s watching.

I’m sure you will have come across this verse or lines from it in many forms and in many places. It is often quoted but it seems that nobody is sure where it came from.

10255439_10152019431592793_8595509808069636734_nDance like no one is watching.

Love like you’ll never be hurt.

Sing like nobody is listening.

And live like it’s heaven on earth.

Let a smile be your style today!

Whatever the origin, the message is powerful. Live life for today. Smell the flowers. Soak up the sunshine. Kiss the baby. Do it all with a smile. I have talked about Mindfulness and the power of Mindful meditation but I also believe that too much introspection and too much time spent deciding how to connect can, leave one taking life far too seriously and not actually living it.

We get so absorbed in the search for happiness that we miss the chance to be happy. Contemporary life is filled with challenges for all of us and everyday things bring new sadness, more worry and ever more stress. Let’s just take that as read and decide to be happy anyway. Alfred D.Souza once wrote:-

For a long time. It seems to me that life was about to begin, real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way, something to be gotten through first, some unfinished business, time still to be served, or a debt to be paid. Then life would begin. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles. Were my life.”

If we choose to view life from this perspective then we see that there is no way to happiness, happiness is itself the way. If we accept this and we must also learn to cherish every moment. Try to share every treasured moment with someone special. Surround yourself with people worth sharing your precious time with.

Remember that in the bank account that is your life, time is unique. You are making steady withdrawals as you go through life, but you cannot make any deposits. Time waits for no man, and your time will not wait for you. So stop procrastinating. Banish ‘until’ from your thinking. Stop waiting….

Until you finish school.

Until you go back to school.

Until you win the lottery.

Until you lose weight.

Until you gain weight.

Until you get a job.

Until you get married.11062693_10206189599515939_5483164311003855328_n

Until you have kids.

Until you get divorced.

Until the kids start school.

Until the kids start college.

Until the kids graduate.

Until the kids leave home.

Until you retire.

Until you get a new car.

Until you get a new house.

Until tomorrow.

Until the sun comes out.

Until the rain stops.

Until the weekend.

Until Monday morning.

Until the end of the month.

Until spring.

Until summer.

Until autumn.

Until winter.

Until after Christmas.

Until the New Year.

Until payday.

Until your song comes on.

Until you have a drink.

Until you are sober.

Until you die.

Until you are born again!

1528722_479233458864358_1378845511_nDecide that there is no better time than right now to be happy. Happiness is the journey, not the destination:-

Sing like nobody’s listening.

Live like there is no tomorrow.

Work like you don’t need the money.

Love like you’ll never be hurt.

And dance like no one is watching!

 

This is an edited and updated version of a blog which I first posted in March 2012.

Mindful May: Mindfulness Meditation

Many people have mixed feelings about the idea of meditation. Some see it as a form of escapism where you sit and empty your mind and think of nothing at all. Others view meditation as a mystical, quasi-religious activity. I was originally a sceptic and I still believe that there is a lot of misinformation about meditation and its uses. Mindfulness meditation however, has been studied closely for around thirty years now and has been well tested in clinical settings.

ccf0200a80a63ec85056662998e0a58eAlthough rooted in the Buddhist tradition, Mindfulness meditation can be used in a completely secular way without any reference to mystical behaviours. Far from training you to think of nothing, Mindfulness meditation teaches you to pay very careful attention to whatever it is that you have chosen to focus on. The first subject is usually your breathing, but once you can experience this attention you can move on to any of your other senses or body parts. As the technique becomes easier you can also begin to focus on your feelings and emotions.

There are two distinct types of Mindfulness meditation: Formal Meditation and Informal Meditation. The second of these may be the more useful technique for long term daily use. I would however suggest that you start with Formal meditation in order to train the mind in the habit of meditation.

Before embarking on any explanation of the two forms I want to clarify my use of the word ‘practise’ in this context. Setting aside all confusion about the use of ‘practice’ or ‘practise’, use of the noun or the verb, or the differences between English or American versions, I am more concerned with the meaning of the word. Yes, at first we will need to practise meditation in order to make the practice of meditation easier. In the first instance we are using the word to imply repeated training to reach perfection in the way that we do something. In Mindfulness meditation there is no requirement to achieve perfection. It is the quality of your experience which matters most. Therefore in this context I am using the word to describe the ongoing use of a technique where you actually engage with your own experience of the meditation.

Formal Meditation

In order to engage in formal meditation you will need to set aside some time to carry out the activity. Only by taking time out from your everyday life can you become more attentive to your own mind. Over time this will train you to be mindful for longer periods of time and to focus more deeply on any habitual behaviours with greater curiosity, tolerance and kindness towards yourself and your current experiences.

Formal meditation is best practiced sitting alone in a quiet,11f003ed73be04af584f36c8b8d03b48 comfortable place with your eyes closed. As previously mentioned it is usual to start by giving attention to your breathing. Focus on how your abdomen moves in and out as you breathe, or how the air flows in and out through your nostrils. Of course other thoughts will pop-up in your mind but you simply return to focusing on your breathing. Try to do this for 10 minutes each day to begin with and the more you do it the easier it becomes to really become attentive to your breathing. Once you are satisfied that you can regularly focus in this way, then you can expand your awareness to include thoughts, feelings or other actions in a mindful way. Formal Mindfulness meditation should be seen as mind training.

Informal Meditation

This is a very different style of meditation where you need no special time or place to enter the meditative state. You can focus your attention in a mindful way while you are carrying out your normal everyday activities. Whether you are walking the dog, cooking the family dinner, or pushing a trolley around the supermarket you can enter the meditative state at any time and in any location. This further trains your mind to stay in the present moment focusing your attention on the here and now instead of drifting back into the past or forward into the future. Informal Mindfulness meditation gives you the means to rest in a mindful state at any time and in any situation.

Now, at the start I mentioned research and those of you who know me will know that I am very much a science guy. If I am to believe in something like Mindfulness meditation I need to at least know a little about how and why it works. Mindfulness has been the subject of study for some thirty years now. It is however in the last decade that advances in imaging techniques have enabled an explosion in neuroscience and have allowed researchers to more accurately observe what the brain is doing during meditation.

In November 2011 a group of researchers published a paper in Perspectives on Psychological Science 6 . Here they suggested that Mindfulness meditation affected some components of attention regulation, emotional regulation, body awareness and changes in our perception of self. The group went on to say that neuroimaging techniques suggest that there were observable “changes in the anterior cingulate cortex, insula, temporo-parietal junction, fronto-limbic network and default mode network structures within the brain”.

Don’t panic. You have not wandered into an episode of Bones, nor do you need to know this stuff. I am simply using this research exemplar to show that Mindfulness meditation does seem to cause observable changes in the brain. It is these kinds of neuroplastic findings which are now feeding into much more in-depth research relating to treatments for mental health disorders.

The current clinical point of view would appear to be that Mindfulness meditation is more effective than some supportive therapies  but perhaps not as effective as traditional Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. This of course assumes that there is some existing condition which needs treatment. I cannot help thinking that just like exercise or healthy eating, making Mindfulness meditation a part of your everyday life will contribute to the mental and emotional aspects of a healthier you.

Mindful May: Stress Management

“I’m having such a stressful day!”

How many times a day do we hear that said? With all of our worries about money, work and relationships, many people are having to cope with increased stress levels. As a Life Coach I get asked about this more than any other challenging situation. A coach will be able to help you manage your stress or even to harness it so that it helps you. There are also a great many things that you can do to manage your own stress.

Some stress is very important to us. We need to be stressed to some extent in order to drive us on towards our goals. This healthy stress can appear as excitement or enthusiasm, enabling us to achieve goals or meet deadlines. Positive stress is what lifts us out of our comfort zone and gives us the power to achieve greater things.

The negative side of this is not so much stress as distress! This occurs when you become overwhelmed by whatever challenges you are facing, the enormity of which can drain your energy. If not resolved through coping or managed intervention, this distress can lead to anxiety or depression along with a wide variety of physical manifestations.

There is clear evidence that the number of prescriptions for anti-depressant drugs such as Prozac have risen dramatically in recent years. It has been suggested that economic problems are fuelling this rise in depression, since GPs and charities are increasingly seeing people struggling with debt or job worries. Ironically, this increase has occurred alongside government initiatives to increase access to the kind of talking therapies that should in theory reduce the need for prescription drugs. Therapists are increasingly turning to elements of mindfulness in an effort to equip their patients to partially manage their own problems.

Stress is a well researched and well understood state triggering neurological and biochemical processes in the body. These changes must be reversed to defuse the stress and if left unresolved it can cause long term damage to both mind and body.

There are really only two ways to reverse the effects of stress, and ‘working through it’ is not one of them! Firstly, exercise can kick start the body’s return to its unstressed state. Secondly, and not surprisingly, good quality relaxation (including sleep) is a great treatment.

You can develop some simple stress management skills that will come in useful even when you aren’t stressed:

EXERCISE – This has so many benefits. Since stress triggers the primitive ‘fight or flight’ response in our bodies, it makes sense that physical exercise would reverse the process. Many experts agree that regular exercise is a great tool to manage stress. Alongside this, it is important to eat well. During times of stress the body needs the right fuel, but it is in times of stress that we all too easily slip into bad habits such as eating fast food ‘on the run’. Some may rely on alcohol, smoking or even drug taking to ease tension. This may help in the short term, but substance abuse actually induces stress and reduces the bodies ability to bounce back.

RELAXATION – The body does have a natural antidote to stress called the relaxation response. The biochemical benefits of relaxation are a sense of calm and well being which can easily be triggered by any one of a number of relation techniques. Simple breathing exercises in times of stress can help enormously. It is important to build relaxation into your schedule. Listening to calm music, reading a good book, spending time with loved ones or pets, working on a hobby, or having a soak in the bath can all work wonders. Mindfulness meditation has been shown to be of great benefit and I will return to this in another blog.

The most important relaxation tool of all is good quality sleep.

Don’t underestimate the value of doing nothing, of just going along listening to all the things you cant hear, and not bothering.

Pooh’s Little Instruction Book. Inspired by AA Milne.

There are many other techniques to help manage stress. Learn to say no, or know when to seek help with a task or challenge. Be realistic in your expectations of yourself and others – nobody is perfect.

A positive mental attitude can help a lot, so watch what you are thinking and modify your attitude. Develop a sense of optimism and learn to put your causes of stress (stressors) into perspective. One way to do this is to grade your stress on a line from zero to one hundred. Right now your email inbox may be a major stressor but, imagine instead that you are a victim of the Nepalese Earthquakes or living in a war zone such as Syria or Iraq. Where do these sit on your line? 90 to 100? Now where does that full inbox sit – less than 10?

Another approach with this is to look into the future. How much will the contents of your present email inbox matter in five years time?

Stress is a huge challenge for many people. If ignored, it can shorten your life at least as much as heavy smoking! However, it is  easy to manage and control before it deteriorates into physical illness, depression, or mental illness.

There are many examples out there of people who have overcome extreme stress, but if you want to be inspired by an outstanding example I recommend reading Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Frankl was sent to Auschwitz during  The Holocaust, and writes movingly about how the attitude of hope can overcome the most extreme forms of stress. I wrote a review of this book for The Coaching Academy online Magazine which you can read here http://www.timorahilly.co.uk/?p=592 When you read his words your problems will suddenly become very small!

If you have any questions or would like any help just contact me at anytime.

Mindful Monday: What is Mindfulness?

In the first Mindful May blog I looked at why I am a positive thinker.fd5202fbe18d1012d71d0450af419a99 In this second posting on that theme I want to look at mindfulness as an important element of that. If you follow my ramble through this coming month of positive musings, you will see that I do not subscribe to any one philosophy in isolation. Instead I draw on a lifetime of self development and pull together a variety of disciplines which help me not just to cope with the modern world but to live in it from day to day. I also firmly believe in moving forward using action oriented goals to work for a better future.

I do not subscribe to the way that mindfulness has been marketed in recent years as some kind of self help commodity. It is not the banal, all encompassing therapy that some practitioners would have us believe. It is no surprise that some critics have labelled it ‘McMindfulness’.

So what is mindfulness? My preferred definition was coined in 2009(Zgierska) as “the intentional, accepting and non-judgmental focus of one’s attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment”. The word itself is actually derived from the ancient Indian word sati meaning  awareness, attention and remembering, and it is an essential element of Buddhist practice.

In this context, awareness is that aspect of being human which makes you conscious of your experiences. Awareness is what makes things actually exist for you. This awareness is then channeled by attention. This is the element of mindfulness that can be trained so that you are able to sustain your attention however and wherever you choose. The term remembering in this context literally means ‘to be mindful of’ (Latin, re = again and memorare = be mindful of). It is about remembering to pay attention to your experiences from moment to moment.

The practice of mindfulness is now being employed by psychologists to help with a variety of mental and physical conditions. These include stress, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. I’ve seen mindfulness wheeled out as a ‘cure’ for depression and for drug-addiction. It is not. In these particular cases, what mindfulness seems very good at is preventing relapse.

It would be fair to say that there are as many definitions of mindfulness as there are scholars studying it and for that reason the results can be somewhat subjective. Historically, mindfulness is associated with Buddhism and certainly the training has centred around mindfulness meditation. I do believe that this has an important role to play. However, the association with more esoteric beliefs and even religion may put some people off and put the benefits of mindfulness beyond their reach.

In order to make mindfulness more accessible to all, especially within the field of psychotherapy, researchers have sought to interpret the term into a more measurable form. David S. Black (2011) arrived at three possible domains for mindfulness which might make it more acceptable:

  1. A trait. a dispositional characteristic (a long lasting habit) which enables someone to easily enter a mindful state and to sustain it.
  2. A state. this is an outcome such as being in a state of present moment awareness (usually as a result of mindfulness training).
  3. A practice. This being the actual practice of mindfulness meditation.

So we see that the practice of mindfulness can be perceived as paying attention in a very specific way, as follows:

  • Paying attention: Whatever you choose to be mindful of, you must pay attention to it.
  • In the present moment: Grounding yourself in the here and now by being aware of the way things are, as they are, at this particular moment.
  • Non-reactively: We are conditioned by learning and past experiences to react to anything that we experience. This reaction is automatic and we have little or no choice in the matter. Mindfulness trains you to respond to an experience rather than react to it. Response is a much more considered and deliberate action.
  • Non-judgmentally: Past conditioning also leads us to judge our experiences as good or bad. We either like a thing or we don’t. Mindfulness removes these personal filters and allows us to see things as they are, without judgement.
  • Open-heartedly: This is probably the domain of mindfulness which many have difficulty with when we say that mindfulness is not just about the mind but about the heart too. Importantly mindfulness looks at our emotions and so this is as good a label for that as any other. Being open-hearted in this context simply means bringing warmth, compassion, friendliness and kindness to your experience.

I’ve found many overlaps between mindfulness and other philosophies and disciplines. This is especially so with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) and other ‘talking therapies’. In the blog posts which follow I will look at a variety of tools and practices which I have found conducive to a positive outlook on life and a ready smile.