Copyright © 2022 Christoph Spiessens
Please note: These are brief answers to complex concepts! There is an abundance of research information available. Please just ask me for additional resources if you are interested in learning more. • What is Mindfulness? Mindfulness is like a diamond with many facets. And trying to define it is like defining art or love… You will hear many different opinions and, in fact, part of the beauty of the Mindfulness journey is the invitation to become clearer about what Mindfulness means to you. Generally speaking, Mindfulness is a trainable skill. That skill is attention. Therefore, Mindfulness is a form of attention training. But there’s something specific that makes Mindfulness practice so special: The element of being non-judgemental as we pay attention. Mindfulness is non-judgemental present moment awareness. We can learn to focus our attention on something without colouring what we observe with our many beliefs, opinions, preferences, etc. We learn to be with something just as it is – without needing it to be different. We learn to pay what is often referred to as kindly attention. We cultivate an attitude of non-judgement and look at things as if we were in the observer seat. When we do this, we can step out of issues and step back for a while -even if only for one moment- and create a gentle breathing space between ourselves and our thoughts. We learn to relate to issues rather than from them. This practice can allow us to respond to whatever occurs instead of reacting to it. Mindfulness helps us to wake up from the automatic pilot mode of mind. On automatic pilot, we are more likely to feel triggered. Events around us, and our own thoughts, feelings and sensations (of which we may be only dimly aware) can trigger old habits of feeling, thinking and behaviour that are often unhelpful. This can often lead to worsening mood, or to physical and emotional symptoms of stress. The aim of Mindfulness is to increase our awareness so that we can learn to live more fully, responding to situations with choice rather than reacting automatically. We do this by learning to pay attention to all our experiences, including our bodily sensations, thoughts, moods and emotions, and to the small changes within them. • Is Mindfulness a religious practice? Although it is generally considered that Mindfulness has its roots in Buddhism (which is a philosophy and science of mind rather than a religion), Mindfulness can be experienced and practiced entirely secularly. The Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course I teach has no intention to purposefully promote any religion and all sessions and practices are secular. • How to practice Mindfulness? And is it the same as meditation? During the MBSR programme, you learn about formal and informal Mindfulness practice. Formal practice consists of exercises including sitting meditation, body scans, breath awareness, and mindful movement. Informal practices invite us to bring mindful awareness to daily activities such as doing the dishes, taking a shower, mindful listening to a friend, and so on. All great opportunities to practice paying non-judgemental attention. It is more challenging than it may seem! We soon realise how distracted we are during those everyday activities… To build the Mindfulness “muscle,” it is important to train it. To use an analogy, if Mindfulness is your fitness level, you’d go to the meditation gym to boost that fitness level. However, Mindfulness is but one form of meditation. During the MBSR course, you have ample opportunity to experience both formal and informal Mindfulness practice. • How does it work? Psychologically, practicing Mindfulness (intentionally paying kindly attention) allows for a shift in perspective to occur. A meta-cognitive awareness called reperceiving or decentering. Reperceiving can help change our relationship to our experience (including thoughts, feelings and emotions). It becomes easier to disidentify from our mind’s content, observe the inner commentary and recognise the impermanence of our predicament. This is not passive resignation but a very alive, active process that facilitates a healthy sense of control and befriending ourselves. Neurologically, Mindfulness practice can positively affect the brain and other parts of our nervous system. When we pay mindful attention, we operate more from the prefrontal cortex (the rational part of the brain which we use for more executive functions such as critical thinking, and is evolutionary the youngest part of the brain) therefore downregulating activity in the older, more emotional and fear-involved parts of the brain. With Mindfulness practice we develop our capacity to integrate different parts of the brain so they can work more harmoniously together, leading to better perspective-taking, less emotional reactivity and more self-regulation. • What are the benefits? Although Mindfulness is not a panacea and mustn’t be presented as one, there are many well-documented benefits that thousands of people around the world report as a result of practicing Mindfulness. Countless scientific studies back up these results and can easily be accessed online for further information. In England, the National Health Service offers Mindfulness training as a treatment to help prevent depressive relapse. Cultivating a daily Mindfulness practice can: Increase self-awareness and self-regulation, reduce stress, bolster the immune system, improve empathy, memory, perspective-taking, attention, patience, reduce anxiety and more. Overall, practicing Mindfulness can lead to suffering less, greater wellbeing and flourishing in life.
Would you like to learn Mindfulness? My next course starts on 6 June. Find out more here.