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Meditation and Mindfulness

meditation230412If you think meditation is all about chanting and tricky cross-legged poses, think again. There’s a new kid on the block and it’s working wonders for teens, adults and A-list stars…

Word is spreading fast these days about a kind of meditation called Mindfulness. Perhaps it’s because, for frazzled 21st-century types, it holds a whole host of attractions.

To begin with, you don’t have to chant ‘om’, burn incense or wear orange robes. In fact, you don’t have to be part of any religion to practise it. It’s inexpensive and it’s something that each and every one of you can fit into your hectic daily routines. Allotting just a few minutes each day, say its devotees, really can help you to lead calmer, more contented lives and rediscover your inner joie de vivre.

Mindfulness is based on Buddhist principles that go back more than 2,000 years. It was first pioneered by Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn in the 1970s. He and his colleagues at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in the US used Mindfulness techniques to help relieve stress in people with chronic medical conditions. They called the eight-week courses offered Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Then, in 2001, UK academics Professor Dr Mark Williams and John Teasdale teamed up with Zindel Segal of the University of Toronto and together they developed Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) to help people with chronic depression.

Live in the now

The thinking behind Mindfulness is that you spend a large portion of your lives either re-living the past or madly fretting about the future. Because you pay so little attention to what is actually happening in the present, you tend to dash through life on autopilot. Before you know it you feel stressed, anxious and burnt out.

The techniques of Mindfulness are designed to pull you back into the present and so free you from the negative thought patterns you fall into over the years. In order to do this, a Mindfulness teacher may encourage you to stand, sit or lie down while you simply focus on your breath, thoughts or the physical sensations in your body for a while (see The breathing space, opposite). Or you may be encouraged to do things normally done on autopilot, such as brushing your teeth or drinking a cup of tea, with more ‘awareness’ (see The chocolate meditation, opposite).

They may be simple, but techniques like these can bring about profound changes in your life, says Anna Black, a Mindfulness teacher based in London and author of Living In The Moment (£12.99, CICO Books). ‘One of the things Mindfulness teaches you is acceptance – accepting other people or accepting your medical condition; accepting yourselves, warts and all.  

‘It also teaches you kindness to yourself. People are often surprised when they realise how tough they are on themselves. Mindfulness gives you a sense of perspective, too. It allows you to see that any problem you may have is just a small part of who you are. It’s not the whole story.’

Doctor’s orders

Another thing that has really helped Mindfulness take off in recent years is the fact that there is good-quality research to back it up. One study, for example, showed that Mindfulness is just as effective as anti-depressants for preventing recurring depression. As a result, UK mental health guides now recommend it as a first-line of treatment for cases of depression.

Dr Peter Wilkes, a GP resident in the Scottish Highlands, has been teaching Mindfulness to his patients for five years. ‘Patients find it helpful for a range of problems including anxiety, stress, fatigue and chronic pain as well as depression,’ he says. ‘If you practise it regularly it makes you much more aware of the negative thought patterns you get caught up in sometimes. It simply makes you feel happier.’

And it’s not just doctors who are starting to understand the value of Mindfulness, either. These days it’s increasingly being taught in schools, colleges, workplaces and prisons.

Notre Dame High School in Norwich has been offering Mindfulness courses to their GCSE students for the past two years. ‘We’re very committed to it,’ says deputy headteacher, Neil Cully. ‘The aim is to help children be more aware of the importance of mental wellbeing. Mindfulness offers new strategies and techniques that will help them cope with all the things life throws at them.’

Mindfulness may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you find you’re no longer coping so well with life, it may just be worth a try. As Anna Black says: ‘If you start to pay attention to the moments that make up every day, you can change your life for the better.’



This article was first published in at home’s ’Ask the Doctor’ with Dr Christian Jessen in March 2012. [Read the digital edition here]



Picture credit: Shutterstock



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