The benefit of being present

From the US army to Oxford University, the concept of mindfulness is being embraced in some surprising places. Nikki Allen discovers the growing popularity of a simple approach to helping people change how they experience life

As 2012 drew to a close, Labour MP Chris Ruane kicked off a debate in parliament about mindfulness and its potential impact on unemployment. The ensuing discussion gave a clear signal to the public that this powerful mind-body practice is firmly on the agenda of our country’s leaders.

“Mindfulness can both prevent people from becoming unemployed, limit the effects of unemployment, and help people to get back to work,” said Ruane. Plus, he pointed out, mindfulness has proven to be beneficial in the workplace, with participants more engaged in their work. “With a greater ability to concentrate, workers become more compassionate, both with themselves and their co-workers,” Ruane said. “And when used in prisons, prisoners become less aggressive and hostile, and have fewer mood disturbances.”

The signs of a widespread mindfulness movement don’t stop there – the practice is being taken ever more seriously within a host of corporate businesses. Its popularity in the workplace makes sense; its focus on stilling and de-cluttering the mind has been shown in many studies to improve attention span and concentration.

“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally”

For example, Transport for London recently carried out a mindfulness programme that led to some impressive results. Among the participants, days off sick due to stress, anxiety and depression fell by 70% and absences for all health conditions fell by 50% in the three years following.

Google, meanwhile, is offering its California workers a free course titled Search Inside Yourself, which is designed to teach ‘practical real-world meditation you take with you wherever you go’. The program describes itself as a business-friendly mindfulness course in three parts: train your attention, develop self-knowledge and self-mastery, and create useful mental habits.

Employees at General Mills – the food company behind brands such as Häagen-Dazs and Green Giant sweetcorn – have been practising meditation and yoga in the workplace too. “It’s about training our minds to be more focused, to see with clarity, to have spaciousness for creativity and to feel connected,” explains Janice Marturano, General Mills’ deputy general counsel, who founded the programme. “That compassion to ourselves, to everyone around us – our colleagues, customers – that’s what the training of mindfulness is really about.”

So what exactly is mindfulness, and what does the practice mean to us in our daily lives? Mindfulness teacher and the founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programme at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Jon Kabat-Zinn, offers a clear definition: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”

Essentially, mindfulness helps us to stay focused on the present experience and observe our thoughts as simply thoughts, neither right nor wrong, just existing. By using simple exercises, mindfulness training helps us pay attention to things as they actually are rather than the way we want them to be, and to be aware of ourselves experiencing and being, rather than getting continually caught up in doing.

This kind of freedom from the constant commentary of our thoughts can help us recognise unhelpful habits of mind and behaviour and even change these to more beneficial patterns of thinking.

Benefits to mind and body

The approach offers a huge range of psychological and physical benefits, studies say. According to the US National Library of Medicine National, in one recent piece of research the concentration of grey matter in important regions of the brain was measured in a group of people about to start an eight-week MBSR course. When they measured the same areas again after the course, they found that the grey matter had grown denser, showing more connections and more activity, in regions involved in learning and memory and the capacity to regulate emotion.

The study also found an increase in the activity in the left side of their brains: a pattern associated with positive feelings and responses, as well as a significant boost to the immune system among the group.

“Mindfulness can both prevent people from becoming unemployed, limit the effects of unemployment, and help people to get back to work” – Labour MP Chris Ruane

And when it comes to regular meditation – one of the most important practices suggested for living more mindfully – the benefits are seemingly endless. A host of psychological studies have shown that people who regularly meditate are happier and more contented than average. Depression, anxiety and irritability all decrease with regular sessions of meditation, while memory improves, reaction times become faster and mental and physical stamina increase.

All of these mental and psychological health improvements have a knock-on effect on the body. Studies worldwide have found that meditation reduces the key indicators of chronic stress, including high blood pressure, that it’s effective in reducing the impact of serious conditions such as chronic pain and cancer, and that it can help relieve drug and alcohol dependence.

According to Annee Griffiths, mindfulness teacher, trainer and supervisor at the Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice based at Bangor University, regular meditation and mindfulness practice can bring us greater ease physically, psychologically and emotionally.

“From my own experience as a mindfulness teacher, I am always amazed by how people are happier and less stressed after practising for only eight weeks,” she says. “One of its great benefits is that it can soften judgemental attitudes both towards oneself and to others. This generates more kindness and compassion, which I believe is key to happier individuals and a happier society.”

Some people think meditation is a selfish ‘navel gazing’ activity, points out Griffiths, but it’s a practice in developing awareness which is, instead, remarkably practical and useful. “More awareness of self and others can help communication enormously,” she adds. “Many people find that it totally transforms their lives.”

Sholto Radford, founder of Wilderness Minds, which runs mindfulness courses in the outdoors, agrees this shift in mode of mind can hugely change our conscious experience.

“It is easy to get caught up in wanting things to be a certain way and thinking if we can only do, then things will be better,” he says. “The practice of mindfulness invites us to let go of goals and expectations and see what emerges in the space left when the striving mind quietens for a moment.

“I found that by introducing mindfulness into lessons, it had a profound effect on the students’ anxiety levels, their confidence and their concentration” – Claire Kelly, teacher and mindfulness practitioner

“One of the first things people notice when they begin mindfulness practice is how much of the time the mind is on automatic pilot, getting caught up in planning, remembering things, worrying, judging and so on, but through mindfulness practice, people tend to find that they can become more aware of this automatic mode and begin to purposefully bring awareness to the direct experience of the senses in the present moment,” he explains.

And it’s not just adults that can benefit hugely from a mindful approach, as Chris Ruane pointed out in his parliamentary debate: “Mindfulness is not just for those who suffer with mental health issues, or who work in high-stress occupations – its applications go far beyond that. In primary schools in my constituency, mindfulness is used to train five-year-olds to be more mindful, to live in the present moment and to concentrate.”

In March, the International Mindfulness in Schools Conference 2013 is set to take place in London, with education secretary Michael Gove expected to attend.

Claire Kelly, a teacher and mindfulness practitioner who is now involved with the Mindfulness in Schools Project, says: “I think mindfulness training should be made available to every child.”

“I found that by introducing mindfulness into lessons, it had a profound effect on the students’ anxiety levels, their confidence and their concentration. Teaching mindfulness to young people gives them crucial tools to deal with the pressures of life. It’s empowering, and once they know how to do it, they can draw on it whenever they need to. Once you’ve seen the tangible effect it has on behaviour and performance, it makes complete sense to incorporate it into school life and beyond.”

The practice of mindfulness

How best, then, to start reaping the many benefits of mindfulness in your day-to-day life? As Sholto Radford points out, mindfulness practice is called so for a reason – it does take practice.

“Ideally mindfulness in daily life is a combination of formal practice, which involves setting aside time to engage with mindfulness practices such as sitting meditation, ‘body scanning’ and mindful movement, as well as informal practice, which is bringing mindfulness into everyday activities,” he explains. The formal practice, he says, helps support the informal practice.

But it’s important not to be hard on yourself if you find it challenging, he adds. “There is a real focus within mindfulness programmes around being gentle to yourself and not judging or struggling with the mind,” he says. “It’s very natural that the mind wanders, and bringing it back to the present moment takes practice and intention but also patience and kindness. Developing a real sense of curiosity towards what is unfolding in experience moment by moment is an attitude which underpins the practice.”

Radford adds that it’s important to remember that mindfulness meditation isn’t about trying to achieve a particular experience: “Quite often you hear people saying they have tried meditation but can’t do it. I think this is because people tend to believe that mediation is about emptying the mind or going into some kind of trance, and when this doesn’t happen they think they have failed,” says Radford. “Mindfulness is not about emptying the mind or even about trying to achieve a particular state of mind. It is about beginning to notice what is happening in the mind and body moment by moment and developing an attitude of curiosity and acceptance to this.”

Interested? There are an increasing number of mindfulness courses available throughout the UK, as well as many helpful books and CDs on the topic.

8 ways to live mindfully every day:

1. Be aware of your surroundings. While you’re walking, standing or sitting, be aware of the nature, people and architecture that surrounds you.

2. Meditate. Set aside a time each day to sit still and focus on your breathing. When thoughts arise, try to simply view thoughts as thoughts, rather than judging them as positive or negative.

3. Practice listening to others. Mindfulness can help us really listen more fully to what others are saying, by being present and attentive to their words.

4. Express kindness. Make a point of expressing gratitude and appreciation of others; this will help to keep you in the present experience.

5. Be still and dedicate some time to doing nothing and just ‘being’. As more and more of our time is filled with emails, texts, social media and entertainment, periods of silence and time alone brings respite.

6. Slow down. Try to do just one task at a time, and eat slowly, taking time to appreciate the food you are feeding your body.

7. Don’t sweat the small stuff. When we hold on to anxiety, it makes it more difficult to live within the moment. Allow yourself to feel your feelings, then let them go.

8. Make everyday tasks and chores a meditation. Cooking and cleaning are often seen as drudgery, but actually they are good ways to practice mindfulness and can make great daily rituals.