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Mindfulness is worth it. All you have to do is practise.

A guest article written by Dr. Ádám Márky

mind-full-or-mindful-ccWhy is it that in today’s society, a society reliant on and shaped by modern technology, more and more people are showing an interest in a several-thousand-year-old tradition for which you need no gadgets at all?

Mindfulness – or more specifically ‘conscious presence’ and the greatest way to practise it, meditation – has been proven to be an effective as both a preventative measure and remedy to a wide range of illnesses; it also nowadays constitutes an organic part of the organizational culture of many of the largest global enterprises. Western science has presumably reached the level where it can prove what people in the East have known through experience for thousands of years: A daily 10-minute attention practice actually brings measurable and observable positive changes to our bodies.

Stress and distraction

An average person’s average day. In 5 seconds:

These days we are bombarded by a huge amount of information each and every second. Our mind in turn considers all of it important, so it tries to pay attention to it all, and this ends up with us not being able to pay attention to anyone or anything. Equally, when we try to relax and not think about anything, we are unable to do so because our brains have got used to this kind of thought pattern, one in which were are continuously contemplating something in the past or the future. However, we can only have control if we are in the present; we are only able to act in the present. If we continuously dwell on the past or the future, where we are powerless, since it is either passed or hasn’t yet arrived, we continuously feel anxious.

The greatest source of stress for us all is uncertainty and helplessness, a fact proven by one the classic psychological experiments of our time. We encounter much stress in our modern lives. A joint survey by The American Institute of Stress and the American Psychological Association revealed that 74% of American employees regard their work as being stressful. This has both mental and physical repercussions, costing American companies an estimated 300 billion dollars a year.  (The American Institute of Stress: Workplace Stress).

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a state: the state of conscious presence. It is a state in which we consciously focus our attention on the present moment, on what is happening inside us or around us. This means that many things can be mindful, or in other words, consciously present. In fact, all of our actions can be mindful. Let’s take a conversation as an example. If we are consciously present in a conversation, then we are not thinking about what we have forgotten to do in the morning or where we have a meeting the following morning while the other person is speaking to us; rather we fully pay attention to the conversation, not only to what the other person is saying but also to what feelings we have, and to what our conversation partner’s or our own non-verbal communication is suggesting.

Do you remember the name of the person you last introduced yourself to?

The answer is usually no. There’s so much going on in our heads – ‘to say my name correctly, to look into the other’s eyes, to give a good handshake, neither a crusher nor a dead fish, not to step on their feet, etc.’ – that in the end we often don’t pay attention to the most important thing: the other person’s name. Many times this lack of awareness of the presence causes internal conflicts; for example, when you start planning where to go for dinner during a meeting, or plan during dinner what to say at the meeting the next day, and so on.

What has mindfulness got to do with meditation?

The main goal of mindfulness is to learn to focus on the present moment. In our world we are ‘present’ in the form of our bodies, so a practical approach to begin practising conscious presence is to focus our attention on our bodies. Meditation is a technique which requires us to do this.

Mindfulness is a state, while meditation is a method

The purpose of meditation or of other relaxation methods (autogenic training, MBCT, MBSR, Jacobson’s progressive relaxation) is to teach us to pay attention to our bodies and to keep that attention fixed as long as possible.

The point is that we can learn to truly focus our attention for those times we need to concentrate, and we can also learn how to relax when we have those times we have the opportunity to unwind.

How do I go about being mindful?

Mindfulness is a state of mind that can be reached by practice. It doesn’t work like medicine. There won’t be any huge changes following a single day of training. You won’t learn mindfulness in a day; you have to practise it.

Close your eyes and try to pay attention to your natural breathing for half a minute without having a specific goal in mind.

How many times did you notice your attention wandering off? Think about when you learnt to ride a bicycle. When you got your first bike, you fell off a lot, whereas now you don’t even have to pay attention to riding it. Mindfulness is just like that: if you practise, you’ll be able to control your thoughts and focus your attention better and better.

Close your eyes again and pay attention to your breathing again for half a minute.

If you got distracted, it was quite possibly due to some noise from outside. Your perception of noises from the outside is a good example of how mindfulness works. The more you practise, the less you notice outside noises. It’s not the street or the office has got quieter, nor is it that the ambulance sirens have become quieter, instead you simply were better able to pay attention to one thing. It’s the same with stress. The sources of stress in your life don’t change; it’s only your responses that quieten down. The subjective feeling of stress decreases.

How scientific is it?

Never has there been a method for handling stress and promoting personal well-being that is supported by so much scientific and practical evidence as mindfulness.

Mindfulness started gaining ground in Harvard Medical School in the 1970s, and has had such startlingly positive results in the treatment of various illnesses that today even the American health insurance system (which, let’s not forget, is strongly business-oriented) advocates mindfulness for preventive, therapeutic or rehabilitation purposes.

The American government realizes that we – as modern ‘Western sceptics’ – demand proof in the form of figures and data if we’re going to believe anything. This is why there are mindfulness research groups at almost all the famous universities in the USA, funded by generous government grants. Researchers have discovered that an 8-week-long mindfulness training course results in the thickening of grey matter in parts of the brain responsible for memory. The standpoint of the American government and companies is clear: it’s much cheaper to teach people to focus and relax than to cover the costs of illnesses caused by stress.

So why doesn’t everyone meditate then?

There are two reasons. One reason is that there is still a lot of prejudice in our minds associated with the word ‘meditation’. Many of us regard meditation as something mystical, spiritual or esoteric, at time when we have to ‘become one with ourselves’, or reach some kind of ‘enlightenment’. In fact, meditation is a simple, scientifically proven attention practice.

The second reason is that we have to practise regularly, something we are patently not used to doing. This is why the classic one- or two-day workshop isn’t effective for teaching mindfulness; you need to meet weekly over the course of 10 weeks at the very least. However, if you can break down these walls of prejudice and fire up enough motivation at the weekly meetings so that participants are willing to practise daily on their own, the results will almost certainly be rewarding. The following feedback I received after a 10-session middle management course held for one of the largest independent creative agencies in Hungary illustrates perfectly the effectiveness of the method:

What were the positive elements of the course for you?

  • Despite my scepticism, I did experience benefits from meditation.
  • It was very useful, exceeding my expectations. It was not only a great way to handle stress, but I also gained self-knowledge.
  • It brought order to my every day.
  • It completely surpassed my expectations. I wouldn’t have thought that mindfulness could have such positive effects on my private life as well as work. Since the course, my days have become much more balanced, positive and productive.

And what have you gained most from the course?

  • Order, awareness, the ability to relax more easily.
  • I’d like to keep meditation as part of my daily life.
  • It helps me handle stress, to calm down and improve the art of paying attention.
  • Meditation has become part of my life and its positive effects have started to show in my personal relationships, in my relationship with the environment and in my work. At work I feel much more collected and less stressed.