Regular mindfulness practice is gaining popularity as a way to improve wellbeing. Undertaken correctly and regularly, it can produce positive benefits in the management of stress, depression, pain and other areas of distress, writes Alice Shires, clinical psychologist and director of the UTS Psychology Clinic.
What is it?
Mindfulness meditation focuses on being in the present moment with your thoughts, free from reaction and interpretation. It’s not something you can learn from a book – although there are some good guides out there to help get you started – only through regular practice.
During mindfulness meditation, we typically sit immobile in silence with eyes closed, not stimulating the senses of sight, touch, taste or smell, and preventing automatic thinking. We don’t distract ourselves or avoid our thoughts, we simply observe a thought ‘as it is’.
This is a skill that takes time to master. It’s hard to be mindful as the mind takes us off course over and over. But regular mindfulness practice helps train the brain to stay on track. And through this, we start to develop equanimity or a calm mind.
Covid-19 is having such a big impact on all of our lives, especially now with so much of Australia is in lockdown. These are difficult and challenging times but they are also an opportunity to develop some of these lifelong skills. I recommend daily practice.
How can it help?
Mindfulness is a tool of self-investigation. When we experience unpleasant thoughts and feelings our usual strategies are to avoid them or look for a distraction. But in a mindfulness meditation, we observe the mind and body whilst learning not to react or interpret these thoughts. We learn to let the thoughts and feelings rise and then pass away. We train the mind to witness thoughts and physical sensations mindfully, as transient and impersonal phenomena.
Through this, we begin to realise that troubles in both the past and present are also of an impermanent nature (as are all things) and therefore we don’t need to dwell on them. We deliberately train the mind to withdraw attention from these mental experiences so we can prevent the rumination, catastrophizing and dissatisfaction that feeds our suffering.
To achieve this, most mindfulness practices will start with some kind of attentional focusing, like mindfulness of breath. This should be undertaken in a very specific way with the purpose of observing the experience within the mind and body in an unbiased and impersonal way.
How to do it
Begin by practicing for 10 minutes twice a day and build up to 30 minutes. Start by sitting in a quiet and comfortable place, free from distraction. Focus your attention on your breath. Start each practice by focusing all of your attention at the entrance of your nostrils. Be aware of the breath coming in and going out, without controlling the breath. Then simply be aware of the air flowing continuously at the entrance of your nostrils.
It’s likely your mind won’t be used to staying in the present moment. It is used to wandering into the past or future, but very rarely staying in the present moment. When thoughts keep intruding over and over and over again, try to withdraw your attention from an ongoing thought. Understand this is just a thought without reacting or engaging with it, without identifying yourself with it. Try to sustain your attention towards your breath for as long as you can.
As your practice develops you can explore more advanced methods which might involve focussing on the body in an impartial way.
It’s important to get some support for your mindfulness meditation practice. Avoid apps that make great promises with little practice involved – they may help with relaxation, but may not give the true benefits of mindfulness.
Mindfulness has a strong lineage and traditionally teaching should be given freely. Whilst this is not always possible, money should not be the primary goal of the teacher. Some ways to get started might be via your local Buddhist centre or meditation centre. Often free or very low cost.
Some yoga studios offer classes in meditation or slow yoga that focus on the breath and body in ways that are calming and mindful.
Mindfulness integrated therapies offer support for those with distress or mental health issues or for those that prefer to be supported as they develop their practice.