The pace of modern life and business is often stressful, in this article Carmel Farnan of the Irish Mindfulness Academy discusses the theory of Mindfulness and some practical tips on how to deal with stress and advice to ‘live in the moment’.
Have you ever noticed that when as you go through the day doing your normal activities, like driving your car, or performing some work related task, that your mind has drifted off, often many miles away and is pondering about something else? You may be daydreaming about your next holiday, worrying about a forthcoming sales meeting, or simply drifting off into random thoughts.
In all of these cases your mind is not on what’s currently happening. This means you are in fact absent from your actual life and are therefore missing large parts of it. This way of operating is often referred to as automatic pilot mode - Mindfulness is the opposite of this. The official definition of Mindfulness is:
“Paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non judgmentally".
Mindfulness is about experiencing the world that is firmly in the ‘here and now. 'Watch how various thoughts can flit through your mind uninvited “Why do things always go so wrong for me?” “Have I definitely finished those prepared for this meeting correctly?” “It will be awful if the traffic is heavy, I can’t be late again”. Or you may notice your mind spends a lot of time dwelling in the past “If only I had made a different decision back then how different things would have turned out". Some people may spend time worrying about the future “What if.X, Y, or Z happens...?”
Because your thoughts make your feelings, when your mind thinks thoughts like those listed above, a corresponding negative emotional state is generated in your body. Research has shown that sad thoughts produce sad feelings, anxious thoughts produce anxious feelings and stressed thoughts produce stressed feelings. Without learning how to use our minds correctly we can become victims of our own thinking, since a mind left to its own devices can generate many variations of subtle emotional suffering.
This suffering comes in different guises. Sometimes we worry about the future, feel sad or angry, or just feel bored, anxious or stressed. Sometimes it’s very subtle—we “just don’t feel great”. In the extreme we can get so taken over by anxiety, depression, pain, or stress related symptoms that we find it difficult to even function.
So, why do our minds work like this?
The answer is down to evolution which through the ages has retained our bodies “fight or flight” response. Imagine a wildebeest grazing in the savannah when it is suddenly chased by a lion. Its “fight or flight” response is activated, flooding it’s body with adrenalin and other stress related hormones to enable it to flee from the lion. Minutes later, the danger has passed and the wildebeest returns to grazing. Its mind also returns to grazing, which results in the body returning to its' natural state.
In contrast, had a human been chased by the lion, our minds would remain on constant alert. “What if the lion comes back?” “How can I defend myself more effectively?” In a modern day context, we as humans remain in a permanent “fight or flight” state as we ruminate on the past, “I should have said that differently in my email”, dwell negatively on current events, or worry about imagined future events “What if I make a mess of the presentation?” “What if I don't reach my sales target this quarter?” Such thoughts produce a hyper vigilant state, causing stress hormones to constantly remain in the body due to this prevalence of negative over-thinking.
So, here’s where Mindfulness is the key to rediscovering our innate happiness and well-being. Mindfulness practice allows us to train our brains to focus on our moment-to-moment experience, freeing us from the tyranny of over-thinking. Research from Stanford University indicates that our mind has approximately 60,000 thoughts per day, which can only happen in our heads one thought at a time.
Mindfulness training allows us to see our thoughts as just that, simply mental events that occur in our minds and not facts. It teaches us to observe our thoughts as they pass through our mind, disengage from them, letting them pass on by, in the same way as the clouds continually move across the sky. This means that when our minds move into the realm of worrying about the next business meeting or paying that mortgage, mindfulness practice helps us return to the safety of the present moment.
When our minds bemoan the cold, the practice of mindfulness allows us notice that it is our complaining thoughts about the cold, not the cold weather itself, that is causing the negative feeling. It is not the situation itself, but our perception of it that creates our feelings. In helping us to observe how we create our own distress, mindfulness practice shows us how to let go of painful thought habits and replace them with more nourishing ones.
Often our lives become bogged down in a swamp of over-thinking. As we become lost in thought we are missing out on the moment to moment wonders of life. A good question to ask yourself to check if you are in the present moment is...“Am I thinking or am I living?”
With the current popularity of Mindfulness we might be led to believe that Mindfulness is a modern day “fad”. This is not the case, since Mindfulness practices originated many centuries ago. However, the current popularity of Mindfulness is due to the fact that it is only in recent times that Mindfulness practices have been empirically backed by science. This validation has been attributed to the recent advancements in brain scanning techniques, specifically Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging. These fMRI brain scans have shown remarkable changes in the brain after only eight weeks of Mindfulness training. A recent study showed significant changes in the brain regions involved in learning and memory processing. Additionally, brain scans illustrated increased activity in the brain regions responsible for emotion regulation and focused attention. All very worthwhile attributes leading to a greater sense of well-being in the workplace.
Mindfulness in the workplace
There are many case studies where Mindfulness has proved extremely beneficial in workplace settings. A mindfulness-based programme offered to workers at Transport for London resulted in major changes to the level of health related absenteeism. Days taken off due to stress, depression and anxiety fell by over 70% in the following three years. Course participants also reported significant improvements in their quality of life – 80% said their relationships had improved, 79% said they were more able to relax and 53% said they were happier in their jobs.
These results were achieved by putting into practice the learnings from the mindfulness course. Mindfulness practice comprises two parts - the informal and formal practice. Informal Mindfulness means making your life a Mindful life, by simply paying attention, with all your senses to whatever you are doing at any moment in time. This could be brushing your teeth, drinking a coffee or driving a car. As you focus with deliberate attention on any of your daily activities Mindfulness becomes an integral part of your life, as opposed to it being another item on the “To-Do” list of an already overly busy life.
The other component of mindfulness is the formal Mindfulness practice. This involves setting aside a specific time in the day to partake in a meditation practice, perhaps observing your breath from moment to moment. As you pay attention to your breath you will notice that your mind naturally wanders. This wandering of the mind is not seen as a failure or a mistake, our minds are made to think. Mindfulness is not about stopping the thoughts, instead when the thoughts occur, one is encouraged to simply observe this wandering and then gently escort the mind back to focusing on the breath. This in time helps build a “Mindfulness Muscle” which research has found encourages the activation of the prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain necessary for complex planning and decision making. Research also has shown that Mindfulness strengthens the brain networks that are responsible for your own emotions and allows you to make sense of the feelings of others - what we call empathy. In modern business, empathy is considered a key leadership skill.
So, why not try the following 1 minute breathing meditation?
Start by sitting comfortably, with your back straight and eyes either softly open or closed.
Notice that you are breathing and feel the sensations of the breath.
If your mind wanders, no problem; just gently bring your attention back to the breath as it enters and leaves the body.
Pay attention to where you notice the breath the most, is it at the nose or.... chest...or ......tummy? .
Stay with the sensations of the breath.
Then when you are ready gently open your eyes.
Now, you have completed your first Mindfulness practice. If you’d like further information on Mindfulness in the Workplace please see http://www.irishmindfulnessacademy.ie/in-the-workplace.
Why not download a selection of free Mindfulness mp3's on http://www.irishmindfulnessacademy.ie/
Carmel Farnan is the founder of the Irish Mindfulness Academy and the British Mindfulness Academy. She is an International Mindfulness Trainer and Psychotherapist and completed additional training as a Psychologist. She has personally practiced Mindfulness from a young age and this interest led her to study Mindfulness over the past 16 years under international leaders in this field. Her most recent Mindfulness study has been the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Program (MBSR) from the University of Massachusetts.
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