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We hear a lot about mindfulness in the press, but few actually can say what it’s all about. There are apps that say they will teach us by practising 10 minutes a day, and the ancient art of mindfulness was first written about 2,500 years ago by Buddhists - although to say mindfulness is Buddhist is like saying Newton invented gravity.
Most people if pressed would say it is some sort of meditation, but again that is not entirely correct. It is possible to live mindfully 24/7 as mindfulness can be done sitting, standing, lying down or through movement, with our eyes open or closed.
The modern definition of mindfulness is entirely secular, and relies as much on clinical trial medical evidence of how our brains work, as it does on meditation.
Mindfulness is the awareness that comes from paying attention on purpose in the present moment to things just as they are non-judgmentally. This definition was pioneered by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the creator of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programme in the late 1970s, and agreed by Professors Mark Williams (Oxford), John Teasdale (Cambridge) and Zindel Segal (Toronto), who created Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) in the UK in the late 1990s.
As the two leading forms of mindfulness training, MBSR and MBCT have been the subject of many clinical trials in the last 30 years and mindfulness is now recommended by NICE as first line treatment for recurrent depression in the UK. Learning mindfulness is also recommended for managing stress, anxiety and chronic pain, but has a more positive effect in the workplace, as shown with sportsmen, artists and musicians.
So, how does it work? Most people will have had instances of paying attention ‘in the zone’, being in some kind of flow of creativity at work, even if not on a sports ground, doing yoga, indulging in a hobby or playing an instrument. Many people will have experienced the ‘mindless’ opposite, driving home on automatic pilot and wondering how we got there as we were thinking about our latest case, or that packet of biscuits that just disappeared after we only intended to eat one.
In mindfulness training we use all the senses and anchor our attention to the present moment by following the breath in the body. We cannot breathe in advance or five breaths ago, so our breath is always in the present moment. The difficult part is being non-judgmental. Our inner critic takes over and provides a running commentary on how we are doing. Mindfulness provides a different way to relate to our thoughts and wake up to what is going on around us, to quite literally smell the coffee. This non-judgmental way of paying attention reaps rewards in our work efficiency and creativity simply by learning how to concentrate on one thing at a time.
Sophie Jane Miller is an employed barrister and teaches MBCT. www.solephilosophy.com