The world that we live in today is not conducive to mental health or wellbeing. Let’s face it - we are constantly bombarded with images and information through multiple devices, and work-life division may as well be a thing of the past. Then, just when we thought we couldn’t experience any more stress or be asked to do any more, we found ourselves in the middle of a global pandemic.
We were expected to adjust the majority of our waking lives — how we worked, how we parented, how we took care of our physical health, how we educated our children, how we socialised with our loved ones— and adapt overnight. Understandably, many people struggled with the difficult emotions that arose from global uncertainty and instability, and a state of calm felt unattainable.
However what if I told you that by waving around a magic wand for as little as five minutes a day, you could experience a reduction in symptoms associated with depression, anxiety, pain and insomnia? That you could enhance your ability to pay attention and make long-lasting memories, protect against cognitive decline, increase your ability to take perspective, increase the grey matter in your brain related to self-awareness and compassion, shrink the grey matter associated with worrying and mind wandering, be less reactive, have the freedom of choice, be less obsessive about yourself and your past and more present in the moment?
Would you agree to wave that wand around every day? Chances are, you would, and you could with mindfulness meditation. It has the power to do all that and more if practised every day.
And with January just around the corner, there’s no better time to reflect on the year behind while focusing on the year ahead.
Given that our mind is a major player in determining the state of our mental and physical health as well as the quality of our lives, it’s essential to start there. And before you start making a ‘to-do’ list of cognitive behavioral techniques or positive thinking, the most foundational skill of good mental health is the ability to still the mind and be in the present moment. This is where ‘mind training,’ also referred to as ‘mindfulness meditation,’ comes in.
What is mindfulness meditation?
Many people confuse mindfulness meditation with a state of being totally relaxed and having no thoughts while sitting on a cushion and meditating. Others believe it to be a religious practice linked to Eastern religions. The fact is that mindfulness meditation is none of the above.
Think of mindfulness meditation as a brain gym. It is literally training your brain to be in the present moment by focusing on your anchor point, which for most people is their breath. When the thoughts show up, as they do for the most skilled meditator, it is then the skill of being able to redirect yourself to your breath, gently and kindly.
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Another thing to note is that mindful living is different from mindfulness meditation. Mindful living is actually engaging in one activity at a time and bringing all your attention to that activity with your mind and five senses. This could be mindfully walking, eating or speaking.
Mindfulness meditation is the formal practice of focusing your attention on one body part or breath. This practice of bringing your attention to one thing at a time, strengthens the associated parts of the brain, resulting in many benefits for the mind and body.
Why practice mindfulness meditation?
It helps to develop the ‘observer self’: By focusing only on your breath and learning to redirect your thoughts as they show up, you will become acutely aware of the fact that you are not your thoughts. This ‘observer self,’ as it gets stronger through daily practice, will be the part of you that will help you figure out which day-to-day thoughts you want to let go of and which ones you will encourage.
It helps you live a life consistent with your values: By practicing mindfulness meditation, you strengthen the executive centres of your brain and learn how to still the mind. In doing so, it becomes easier for you to not be driven by your internal chatter or external circumstances. It is the difference between being in a place of personal power where you choose to respond to the ones that are consistent with your values vs. being a victim of your internal and external circumstances.
Mindfulness meditation helps combat disease: One thing that is clear from cutting edge research is that there is no difference between mind and body. The establishment of a field of medicine known as psychoneuroimmunoendocrinology asserts precisely this idea: a stressed mind is a stressed body and vice versa. And because we live in a world which enables and encourages us to be constantly ‘on,’ our mind and bodies are on overdrive.
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Biologically that means our bodies are never recovering or resting, which increases inflammation. Mentally it means we are always living on the edge of a burnout episode. This constant state of inflammation causes havoc in our bodies, resulting in disease. From autoimmune diseases and heart disease to gastrointestinal issues and cancers, every disease has inflammation at the core of it. By practising mindfulness meditation and actively turning off the ‘fight or flight’ and turning on the ‘rest and digest’ system, you are helping to combat major mental and physical diseases.
How to begin your mindfulness meditation journey
Mindful practices can take on many forms, but generally, mindfulness meditation involves breathing exercises and awareness of body and mind. The objective here is to successfully place attention on one thing – the breath, a sound, a sensation or any other object.
Follow these steps to begin:
1. Break down the baby steps into micro-steps, starting with the tiniest step towards this goal and build momentum from there. Most people will not start meditating 10-15 mins a day, so start with 1 minute a couple of times a day and build up from there. The goal is to do it at the same time every day and slowly increase the time.
2. Do body scans. When people are first starting they find it hard to focus on the breath, so try listening to a YouTube video that will take you through a body scan. The body scan is a simple, structured way of checking in with the different parts of your body. The scan involves systematically sweeping through the body with the mind, bringing an affectionate, openhearted, interested attention to its various body parts.
3. Be patient with the process. You will not see the results of mindfulness meditation on your mental and physical health right away, just like if you started going to the gym and lifting 2kg weights, you would not see immediate results in your muscle mass. You would need to show up consistently and increase the intensity for you to see results over time.
4. Supplement with other single-minded activities. This can include chess, puzzles, colouring, sewing, yoga that will help build the muscles of mindfulness through daily activities.
Through consistency and dedication to mindfulness meditation, the benefits are endless. With 2020 behind us, we know all too well how much stress and pressure we already have on our shoulders. We as humans have the tendency to give in to these stressors, but with a mindful outlook on life and practicing meditation regularly, you can anchor yourself in the present moment and regain focus on your path ahead.
Dr. Saliha Afridi is a clinical psychologist and managing director of The LightHouse Arabia