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In this post, international barrister, mediator and mindfulness teacher Gillian Higgins answers questions about mindfulness and how it can help us to find a sense of balance and well-being in our daily lives at work and home.
Mindfulness is about paying attention to moments of everyday life with curiosity and openness, on purpose. It involves dropping into your present moment experience and being aware of what you’re doing, while you’re doing it, with a non-judgmental attitude. In essence, it’s about experiencing the ‘here and now’, rather than hankering after how you would like life to be, or regretting what you did yesterday.
How can mindfulness benefit lawyers? As lawyers, mindfulness helps us to be alert to distractions; return to focused attention and improves our working memory. These benefits alone can make a significant difference to our ability to tackle challenges in the workplace. On a personal note, although I wondered initially what colleagues might think once they found out I meditated, I knew that my mindfulness practice improved my performance as a lawyer. I became a better listener, more self-aware and less likely to take defeat personally. Rather than lose my ‘edge’, I gained a platform from which to speak openly about some of the professional challenges we face as lawyers and how mindfulness might help us to respond to at least some of them.
How to practice mindfulness
You can practise mindfulness in different ways. One way is to learn mindfulness meditation
which involves paying attention to
your moment-to-moment experience with acceptance, patience and kindness to yourself. Another way is to use ‘daily mindfulness practices’. These are instances where you pause, breathe and bring moment-to-moment awareness to an aspect of your everyday life, such as the brewing of your tea or the taking of your morning shower. By pausing in this way, you might notice the aroma of your drink or the sensation of the water as you take in your experience fully. So often, the uniqueness of the moment is lost as our focus shifts to simply getting through the day.
To meditate, you could use a point of focus, such as your breath. When your mind wanders away from following the breath and strays into thinking, worrying, or planning, just notice where it has wandered to and gently guide it back to following the physical sensation of the in-breath and the out-breath. This type of meditation helps to develop a capacity to remain focused while also being alert to distractions as they arise. With practice, you start to recognise that thoughts are not facts and will come and go of their own accord, if you allow them to do so.
One of the most common barriers is the feeling that you don’t have time to meditate. The irony is however, that practising mindfulness meditation can help you to become more focused, less willing to be distracted and more time efficient. As little as thirty seconds of time spent meditating can make a difference to your ability to respond to the most stressful of situations. If you can take just a few minutes to still your body and sit quietly on a regular basis, you will soon be able to tap into a sense of calm whenever you need it most.
How to silence your negative inner voiceNegative thoughts such as ‘I’m not clever enough’, or ‘I’m useless’ can appear almost audibly like a soundtrack in the mind. They belong to the inner critical voice, which is a type of dialogue that pops in and out of our conscious thinking and takes the form of ideas, suggestions, thoughts and expressions that guide behaviour. The inner critical voice is the familiar negative tune our mind starts to hum to remind us of how inadequate it deems us to be. Over time, it can diminish self-esteem and impact negatively on our ability to make decisions.
The first step towards taming the inner critical voice is to notice its arrival. This is easier said than done as we’re so used to hearing it that it can feel as though it’s intimately connected to who we are. This is where the practice of mindfulness comes in useful, as it helps us to notice when the inner critical voice starts to speak.
The next time it appears, see if you can hear what it says, notice how often it visits and how it makes you feel. You might want to label it in some way, such as, ‘negative voice telling me I’m not quick enough’. In response, acknowledge its presence and gently invite it to leave. Noticing how vicious your own commentary can be often provides a much-needed moment for reflection. See if you can replace or soften its content with self-compassionate words of kindness, such as ‘I’m strong enough’ or ‘capable enough’ to carry on.
What are the long-term benefits of mindfulness?As you continue to meditate, your brain changes physically, a process known as neuroplasticity. This refers to the lifelong capacity of the brain to rewire itself in response to the stimulation of learning and experience.
Scientific research shows that a regular practice of mindfulness leads to
the cerebral cortex (the outer layer of the brain) becoming thicker in three key areas (the prefrontal cortex
– the part that controls attention; the insula – the part used for tuning into others and ourselves; and the hippocampus – the part that regulates your visual and spatial memory). These changes help to explain how meditation improves our ability to pay attention, gain greater self-awareness and experience more empathy for others.
It also helps to reduce the reactivity of the amygdala - the part of the brain responsible for memory of emotions, especially fear and the triggering of the fight-flight-freeze stress response. Mindfulness meditation is a proven way of activating the parasympathetic nervous system, or ‘rest and digest’ system as it’s more commonly known. This reduces the harmful levels of stress hormones released into the body when the fight- flight-freeze response is activated. Engaging this part of the nervous system is a reliable way of regulating the impact of negative stress.
Research shows that regular mindfulness meditation improves your concentration, decision-making and working memory. It reduces stress, lowers your heart rate and blood pressure, strengthens the immune system, and reduces anxiety and depression. It can even reduce hyperactivity in ADHD sufferers and help to alleviate insomnia. Mindfulness encourages emotional stability by enabling you to observe your feelings rather than getting caught up in the drama of how you perceive life to be. It boosts self-esteem and teaches you to appreciate daily life as it unfolds, in all its majesty and travesty.
Gillian Higgins is an international criminal barrister, mediator and mindfulness teacher at The Chambers of 9 Bedford Row in London. Gillian is the founder of www.practicalmeditation.co.uk which aims to share mindfulness in a way that works for you and provides courses and workshops for individuals and organisations.
Gillian’s first book “Mindfulness at Work and Home” is published by RedDoor Press and is available from www.practicalmeditation.co.uk
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