“A Jedi must have the deepest commitment, the most serious mind… All his life has he looked away… to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was” - Yoda (Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back).
Many of us would love to receive Yoda or Obi-Wan’s guidance in this stormy ocean that is called life. In fact, sooner or later, the majority of us experiences stress or anxiety. One might even describe the thoughts and emotions as controlling and overwhelming to the point that it feels there is no sign “EXIT” at the end of the tunnel.
In these cases, the predominant need may be to stop the world and to take a long, deep breath.
I am here to tell you that you have the power to take control and to stop time.
Is it a magic trick? Can only special people do it?
Well, I am delighted to let you know that everyone can do it and that it is not, in fact, magic.
There is an approach that is very easily accessible, and when mastered it can be profoundly liberating. The answer is: mindfulness.
“Be mindful of your thoughts, Anakin. They will betray you.” - Obi-Wan (Episode II: Attack of the Clones).
Mindfulness is a useful tool that you can use to handle every-day stressful situations and to reconnect with yourselves in order to improve your general well-being and mental health.
First of all: A little bit of history
Mindfulness derives from Buddhism which believes that individuals can eliminate suffering by having a neutral vision and awareness of reality and themselves in the present moment (here and now).
We have Jon Kabat-Zinn to thank for the introduction of mindfulness in the Western world.
The American professor emeritus of medicine and biologist created the “Stress Reduction Clinic” in 1979, with the intent of introducing it into medical practice, such as in hospitals, health centers and clinics, in order to mitigate chronic pain and to give additional help to those patients sadly facing terminal illnesses.
This program was then modified, and today it is known as “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction” or “MBSR” programme.
This meditation approach is based on focused attention meditation, and on open monitoring/non-directive meditation.
In focused attention meditation, your focus is an object, that could be a mantra (from the Sanskrit “sacred message or text, charm, spell, counsel”; it is a word or sentence repeated during meditation), a part of your body, or even a sound.
Whereas, in the second style, open-monitoring, you simply become a witness of everything is happening without judging it.
The skeleton of the MBSR programme is a schedule of 8-weeks’ training. It requires learners to practice mindfulness techniques daily, both by themselves and in weekly group sessions. It may seem quite intense and challenging, but this period of time is the minimum needed in order to make using these techniques comfortable.
Digital technology can also help you. In fact, there are many mobile applications and CDs/DVDs which will guide you in learning mindfulness and in feeling more comfortable in its practice.
We are often distracted.
Our minds fly over time and space and we lose touch of our bodies.
We are soon absorbed in obsessive thoughts about something that just happened or, that may happen in future.
It seems we have been on automatic pilot for our entire existence.
However, paying closer attention to the flow and content of your experience can allow you to take control of your mind and to notice such patterns in your behaviour.
Mindfulness has also been found to improve mood and cognitive functions, with regular practice being shown to be associated with structural changes in the brain and improvement in neural connectivity.
“I’m alive. When I’m eating that’s all I think about. If I’m on the march, I just concentrate on marching… If you can concentrate always on the present, you’ll be a happy man. Life is the moment we are living now.” - Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist.
Even though I am praising mindfulness as the answer to stress-related problems, I want to highlight the fact that it is not actually a form of psychotherapy, although, it could be used as a strategy in the rehabilitation pathway.
However, a group of individuals called Zindel Segal, Mark Williams and John Teasdale, have actually developed a Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), merging mindful meditative techniques with cognitive psychotherapy. The MBCT has been found to be effective when used in addition to medication in patients suffering from anxiety, depression and other psychiatric conditions such as bipolar disorder.
And now: Some practice
It is important to know that before feeling the benefit effects of mindfulness, you first need to learn how to breathe…
Yes, I know, I know. You already know how to do it. But, what I am referring to is a special type of breathing.
This breathing can be your anchor, keeping you in a focussed state in the conscious observation of experience.
When practicing MBSR, you have to deeply inhale through your nose by lowering your diaphragm and by expanding your lungs as much as you can, before slowly exhaling out of your mouth.
While doing this, your focus is directed only on your breathing and the movements of your body created from it. In this way, you should be able to achieve an awareness of your own inside and outside worlds.
Later, when practice develops and your ability to focus attention improves, you can observe your thoughts and emotions as they arise. You can ask yourself where they come from, how they feel, and soon you will start noticing patterns in your thoughts and behaviour.
A lot of people are afraid that mindfulness is quite complex, but in reality it is often much simpler than it seems.
So, how do we start?
Mindfulness is an ensemble of different exercises but, luckily, you can practice it at any moment during every-day activities, like eating…
I can show you how this might feel by using something as simple as a raisin:
Firstly, look at the raisin, lingering on every shape, colour and shadow.
Secondly, smell it until you catch the different shades of the fragrance.
Thirdly, after having closed your eyes, place the raisin in your mouth and roll it around with your tongue, noticing the taste and texture, what is happening and how your mouth reacts to it as you slowly chew and swallow the raisin.
I am not for a moment expecting you to eat every mouthful of food in this way, but hopefully this activity demonstrated how much of a rich and deep your experience could be.
By practicing it every day, then you can break through the glass wall between you and life itself.
You can learn how to perceive and accept reality in the present moment, as it is, by looking at negative thoughts in a detached way — as if they were in a world separate from yours — and seeing them for what they are, that is, as a product of your mind.
Thus, mindfulness could be helpful for those who suffer from anxiety, depression, experience burn-out and/or negative feelings that sometimes can be overwhelming, as mentioned when I spoke about mindfulness-based cognitive therapy.
Remember that mindfulness is training, and like every training, it requires time and dedication.
If after some sessions you don’t feel any changes and you feel like giving up, keep in mind to not to judge yourselves and remember that as Yoda said, “patience you must have my young padawan”.
May the force be with you!
header image source