Have you ever driven halfway to work before suddenly realising that you actually wanted to go to the supermarket? Or perhaps you planned to drop in at a friend’s house but before you know it you’re parked outside your own front door?
We often wonder how we could be so forgetful, but this is a perfect example of the autopilot our primordial brain developed in order to help us react reflexively in the face of danger. This ability to act instantly, and without the need to spend valuable time consciously deliberating fight or flight, enabled prehistoric man to operate quickly to escape his predators.
This mode has many advantages; we don’t have to remember how to drive, eat and speak. Yet there are also many disadvantages; we have seen the inconvenience of forgetting to shop on the way home from work. However, more importantly, we can lose awareness of our thinking and are prone to slipping into autopilot with our thoughts. We are physically present, but our mind is elsewhere. Our whole life can then become one long series of interlinked habitual thoughts that involve very little conscious input, and ultimately we end up living in our heads. In a sense, we have no control over what we think when this happens. For those prone to stress, anxiety and depression this can be extremely dangerous as thoughts can quickly spiral down well-worn tracks of negativity.
Now there’s an antidote to autopilot, called Mindfulness. This buzzword has swept into Western vocabulary and changed the face of our understanding of human psychology over the past thirty years. According to the Mental Health Foundation, 30% of GPs in Britain now refer patients to NHS-funded mindfulness based training programmes.
So what exactly is Mindfulness? Mindfulness has been described by expert Dr Jon Kabat- Zinn as ‘a particular way of paying attention: on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally.’ Put in a more pragmatic fashion, this approach claims to enable individuals to distinguish a wider range of choices in their lives, and then intentionally decide how to respond to their experience, rather than being driven solely by habitual reactions. Whilst this may sound relatively simple, it is in fact remarkably hard to remember to do!
Mindfulness increases awareness of our thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations, and is proven to be an effective means of causing positive changes in well-being including long-lasting physical and psychological stress reduction, improvement in the quality of life for people living with chronic pain, and developing control over addictive behaviour.
As human beings we have the capacity to be impartial to our mental, emotional and physical experiences. This enables us to move from overidentification with an experience to a clearer perspective on what is actually happening.
One of the things we do in mindfulness practice is attempt to look at our thoughts, rather than seeing the world from our thoughts. Usually when we have a thought we consciously, or even unknowingly, believe it to be real; we believe what it is saying to us and ‘buy into it,’ which results in us looking at the world from the point of view of that particular thought. Some thoughts may well be true, but importantly many thoughts aren’t, such as those judgmental thoughts ‘I’m useless, I always make mistakes’ we often tend to believe.
When we become lost in our stream of thoughts, it could be said that we are no longer thinking, we have actually become the thought – the tail is wagging the dog...
While some thoughts may well be true, the point is that they are only thoughts, and Mindfulness helps us to notice this fact andnot be controlled by them. Scientists call this ability metacognition; you can become aware that you are thinking. This prevents you relating to the world by filtering it through your thoughts, and gives you a vantage point from which you can see your mind in action.
Mindfulness was first introduced to Western healthcare in 1979, when Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts Medical Centre developed a programme for patients suffering from various illnesses, called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR.) Mindfulness helps with our experiences of stress, pain or depression by allowing us to distinguish between two types of experience; our primary (direct) sensing of the world, and our secondary (indirect) experience of the world formed ‘in our head.’ Mindfulness training encourages us to think less and experience more. Whilst Mindfulness does not promote thinking as a negative thing – sometimes it’s absolutely essential to think – it advocates that living with a more direct and immediate experience of the world is far more enriching and positive. This can dramatically lower our stress levels.
An underlying principle throughout all mindfulness training is the notion that ultimately our mind has two modes of working. Professor Mark Williams, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Oxford and Previous Director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, along with John Teasdale and Zindel Segal, developed the first UK Mindfulness Programme aimed at those with recurrent depression; Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), and in this he categorised this distinction as the Being Mind and the Doing Mind. The Being Mind is concerned with our direct primary experience of the world; what sensations we are exposed to in this particular moment of our day, what we can feel, hear, smell etc from within our bodies. Alternatively, the Doing Mind refers to our mind’s ability to conceptualise, analyse and judge our experiences, and is ultimately our secondary experience of the world. It is Doing mode which enables us to automate our life and live on automatic pilot. Unfortunately, as humans we have a tendency to remain in the Doing mode more than usual when we are stressed primarily because it helps us to problem solve and fix things. But in the realm of our emotions it is not capable of ‘solving’ problems, and actually this overuse of mental activity keeps us trapped in our feelings of stress.
Breathworks, a Mindfulness-based organisation in Manchester, offers help to those suffering specifically from chronic pain and illness. This was developed by Vidyamala Burch in 2001, based on her own use of Mindfulness for decades to help her manage her response to severe spinal pain following two major injuries in her teens. Breathworks have distinguished two different types of suffering that we can experience. Physical pain, such as the actual experience of discomfort in our lower back, corresponds to our direct primary experience of the world, and thus is classified as primary suffering. Secondary suffering stems from resistance to an initial unpleasant sensation. This secondary suffering can manifest as physical, mental or emotional reactions such as tensing or having negative thoughts such as ‘I can’t deal with this anymore.’ So you could say that the pain isn’t the whole problem – resistance to the pain, and unhelpful coping mechanisms which derive from this, is the major cause of suffering.
Usually when we are under physical, mental or emotional distress, we develop natural coping mechanisms to deal with our secondary suffering. Breathworks describe these habitual reactions as ‘blocking and drowning.’ Blocking refers to our attempts to push away, squash or simply ignore our feelings. Ultimately we try to distract ourselves by denying and avoiding the existence of our pain. The second reaction we may experience is drowning, where we feel overwhelmed; as though we can no longer bear it. Both of these natural coping strategies turn our pain into the ‘enemy,’ and whilst this is a seemingly harmless instinctive reaction, it actually perpetuates our problems through causing additional resistance, and is therefore a cause of further distress.
The practice of Mindfulness facilitates a space between primary suffering and the automatic habitual reactions of secondary suffering, gradually enabling secondary and even sometimes primary pain to be reduced and become more manageable. By turning towards pain with an attitude of acceptance, many are often surprised to find that when they look at them, painful sensations are not nearly as terrifying as they had imagined.
In fact, we discover the pain is changing, with the intensity reducing and strengthening repeatedly, and it may well include pleasant sensations. Crucially, this ‘turning towards our experience’, and accepting the painful along with the pleasant, does not imply a type of cold endurance or ‘putting up with’ it. It is much more positive, and actually means getting close to the experience, or touching and feeling it. We are then able to choose how to respond to our experience of pain rather than remaining caught in a net of abstraction and fear about past and future painful experiences.
Whilst turning towards our difficult experiences seems counter-intuitive, hardening ourselves against them actually causes us to become more closed off to all aspects of life – including the positive! In becoming more receptive to negative sensations within our bodies we actually open a pathway that enables us to experience joy and pleasure more vividly and directly. Breathworks teach specific techniques to connect with pleasure and to develop a much richer experience of life.
Oxford University Mindfulness Centre have demonstrated some Neuro-scientific findings relating to those who practice Mindfulness. This has led to some courses being approved by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE.) There are physical changes in areas of the brain that are associated with decision-making and attention, thus improving job performance. Also there is a substantial increase in the area of the brain linked to regulating emotion, productivity and satisfaction. Furthermore, the meditation practices associated with Mindfulness have been proven to increase immune function, blood flow, reduce blood pressure and thus protect those at risk of developing hypertension. Incredibly, it has also been linked with reducing the risk and severity of cardiovascular disease.
Mindfulness courses in the West have been developed specifically in a secular manner, though they ultimately derive from Buddhist teachings. Therefore if you are interested in attending an eight week course, there is no worry it will clash with your beliefs or religion.
Although not all areas of the UK offer NHS referrals, the County Durham and Darlington areas do offer this service with Living Mindfully. The Mental Health Foundation website www.bemindful.co.uk has an interactive map of courses throughout the UK, and there are courses in the North West provided by Breathworks which are accessible online at www.breathworks-mindfulness.org.uk.