This is the first of two blogs about mindfulness and meditation. In this blog I’ll try to explain them, the difference between them and why they’re good for us. Next time, I’ll talk about how to go about practising them.
In the past year or so, whenever I’ve scanned the horizon for what’s going on in the world of wellbeing, I’ve come across the words ‘mindfulness’ and ‘meditation’. Suddenly they’re as fashionable as kale – appearing everywhere, not exactly tempting, but apparently the answer to all our problems.
What made me sit up and pay attention was their appearance in nearly every corporate journal. Take this article from Forbes Magazine, for example, describing how leading CEOs like Steve Jobs, Marc Benioff and Jeff Weiner are (or 'were’, in Jobs’ case) strong believers in meditation. Or this one, from The Guardian, about Chade-Meng Tan, Google’s head of mindfulness training. Yes, it’s a real job and his official title is – believe it or not – Jolly Good Fellow.
All very well, but I’ve never been sure about what mindfulness and meditation actually mean, or if they are as powerful as people claim. They seem to be wrapped in mystery, particularly about how to actually ‘do’ them. To get the benefits, would I have to sit in full lotus, thumb to middle finger, for two hours a day? Would I have to wear patchouli oil and chant a mantra? What’s the difference between mindfulness and meditation, anyway?
So in the interests of Springday and our clients I’ve spent the last couple of months researching things. Here’s what I know so far:
There are hundreds of definitions of mindfulness and meditation but the common thread seems to be that mindfulness means to intentionally pay attention to the present moment, particularly to thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and the surrounding environment. According to the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkley, ‘It involves acceptance, paying attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them – without believing, for instance, that there’s a right or wrong way to think or feel in a given moment. When we practice mindfulness, we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future’.
This makes sense. Most of us spend our time thinking about what we’ve done or what we’re about to do, rather than what we’re doing right now. And then, when we have to make a decision we ignore the present situation and our feelings, and go with preconceptions or knee-jerk reactions. Mindfulness can prevent us doing this, and can thus help us make better choices.
That’s just the start. Mindfulness (and meditation, but I’ll get to that in a moment) bring a range of scientifically proven benefits. Here’s just one example, published by the Harvard Business Review, and which explains how mindfulness can literally change your brain. Mindfulness can reduce stress, alleviate depression (at a level equal to anti-depressants), boost your immune system, improve focus, increase attentiveness, enhance relationships and reduce symptoms of illnesses such as IBS and chronic fatigue. All this for free, so we should take it seriously.
OK. So what about meditation? Meditation, which has its roots in ancient Buddhism, is the formal practice of mindfulness. Meditation seeks to train the mind by removing it from the worthless chatter of the everyday. With meditation, you set aside time to do nothing else but focus your mind. With mindfulness, you apply a similar mental practice, but piecemeal, and when you’re just living your life.
It’s like the difference between the gym and housework. When you go to the gym, you go to a specific location, get ready, and devote time to the singular task of improving your fitness. When you work around the house, you help your body, but while you do other things, and not as intensely.
According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, you can cultivate mindfulness through meditation but you can also achieve it by everyday practice, by ‘living your life as if it really mattered, moment by moment by moment by moment.’ (And oh, boy, that resonates with me, when I think of the times when my kids try to talk to me and instead of listening I’m on the phone, or cooking, or doing something else – ouch!)
So how do you actually ‘do’ mindfulness and meditation? I’ll go into that in my next blog, All in the Mind Part 2. In the meantime, let’s enjoy every minute of our lives, and just in case…Ooooooooooooommmmmmmmmmm!
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It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but rather the one most adaptable to change.
- Charles Darwin