7 min|Dr. Maya Kuczma
Cultivating Presence: Exploring the Power of Mindfulness TrainingWellness, Mind Health
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness, you’ve likely heard the word. It’s popping up all over the place as the answer to everything that ails us. Depressed? Anxious? Diagnosed with cancer? Mindfulness seems to be the answer if you believe everything you read. But as with many health trends, the claims surrounding mindfulness are wide-reaching.
Is the hype real, or will mindfulness be a passing trend, unable to deliver and destined to be discarded?
Mindfulness itself is a simple concept - it refers to the practice of focusing your mind on the present moment, fully attending to your surroundings and experience. Simple? Yes. Easy? Hardly. Nowadays, distraction is a much easier course of action. In every passing moment, distraction is literally at our fingertips.
Whenever we are forced to wait for something, we can scroll through Instagram.Find yourself with idle time? Log-in to Facebook and time seems to slip away. Even without a technological placeholder, our mind can wander away from the task at hand. Ever find yourself pulling into your driveway, unable to remember your drive home? This is a distraction in action.
At its worst, our mind focuses incessantly on a worry, a projection into the future about what may happen (anxiety), or a dwelling on the past that we cannot change (depression). Mindfulness is a rejection of this way of life, a conscious realignment of our attention towards what we are experiencing now. As foreign as it may feel, mindfulness is innate. We are born with the ability to focus in and be present. However, we may feel as though we’ve forgotten this skill. If this is the case, we can benefit from practices to cultivate mindfulness.
Meditation is an example of such a practice but is certainly not the only road to being present. There are many techniques that help create a connection with the present moment; through these practices, we can gain access to a wide variety of benefits.
Mindfulness has recently gone through a rebranding; once thought of as a technique with spiritual undertones, mindfulness has become accessible to the masses, spiritual or secular. Within this marketing campaign, mindfulness has at times been framed as a cure-all, with endless health claims listed as taglines to market a mindfulness program, course, or tool.
While there are definitely overzealous advertisers, many of the claims are not unfounded. Mindfulness has been extensively researched, with results illustrating benefits in stress response, immune function, pain perception, anxiety and depression, confidence, compassion, focus, and decision-making:
- Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), an educational mindfulness program, reduced symptoms of anxiety and improved coping in people diagnosed with generalized anxiety (1)
- Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), a form of therapy that utilizes mindfulness training, reduced depression recurrence and improved quality of life equal to antidepressant therapy (2)
- Self-compassion meditation, an example of mindfulness, improved body satisfaction and reduced body shame in a study of women of varied ages; improvements remained three months later (3)
- In a 4-day study, meditation improved mood, reduced fatigue, reduced anxiety, and increased mindfulness (4)
- In a study of healthcare professionals, an 8-week course in MBSR reduced stress, improved quality of life, and increased self-compassion (5)
- After 4 days of mindfulness meditation training, reported pain unpleasantness was reduced by 57% and pain intensity decreased by 40% when compared to rest (6)
- After an 8-week MBSR program, women with breast cancer exhibited improvements in immune function, as well as decreased cortisol levels and improved coping in comparison to the non-MBSR group (7)
- Mindfulness may be related to our ability to refrain from maladaptive impulsive behaviours, even in the presence of stress. In other words, mindfulness may help us to make healthy decisions in other areas of your life (8)
Mindfulness and You
Interested in cultivating mindfulness, but don’t know where to start? You don’t need to reinvent the wheel or force yourself into a practice that feels disingenuous. We all have access to mindfulness; anyone can do it, at any moment. But the best practice is one you’ll actually do. Choose the method of mindfulness that feels truest to you, and you’ll be more likely to make it a part of your daily life.
I want to be mindful... on my commute
Excellent! Our commute is often thought of as wasted time but, in fact, is the perfect opportunity to practice mindfulness, whether you are driving or a passenger. Prior to the commute, take a few deep breaths and set an intention for the ride. Focus on the feeling of your body - if you’re driving, notice how your hands feel on the steering wheel. Scan your body, noticing areas of tension.
Be present. If your mind begins to drift, bring it back to the task at hand. If you’re a passenger on a train or bus, you can practice what we’ve just described, or you can listen to an app such as Insight Timer, Stop Breathe Think, Calm, or one of the many other mindfulness apps available in the App Store.
I want to be mindful… and meet people
Whether you’re in Vancouver, or another city, group meditations and mindfulness sessions are popping up everywhere! A quick Google search can yield many results - in Vancouver, the Vancouver Shambhala Centre, House of Moment, Zen Center of Vancouver, and the BC Insight Meditation Society offer group meditations and mindfulness training and an opportunity to meet like-minded individuals.
I want to be mindful… outside
A walking meditation helps us to connect with nature while practicing mindfulness. During walking meditation we focus on our senses - what do you see? What do you hear? What do you feel, under your feet, and with your hands? Take frequent stops to absorb your surroundings.
Give in to the desire to wander and take your time. Notice how you feel. And, it goes without saying, you’ll find mindfulness easier to access if you put your phone away and experience nature without a lens.
I want to be mindful… and creative
Mindfulness and creativity go hand-in-hand. When we practice mindfulness, we can be absorbed by creativity, fully present to creative impulse and exploration. When the two merge perfectly, a flow state occurs and time can pass by without notice. Go with your instinct - painting, pottery, sketching - whatever calls you.
In the moment, enjoy the process. Let go of distraction and focus on how the clay feels in your hands, how the brush feels against the paper, how the pencil line alters depending on the pressure you apply. You may find this to be your favourite way to practice mindfulness, as creativity is often a less explored facet of busy adult life.
I want to be mindful… and I'm a type A
Ahhh, yes, the achievement based type-A personality. If you’re reading this, you are admitting your nature - good! Utilize your desire for predictability and seek out structured mindfulness training. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction is an 8-week class, teaching you the tools of mindfulness. Transcendental meditation is practiced twice daily for 20-minutes; you are provided with professional training, as well as checking-sessions, and lifetime follow-up and support, as needed.
I want to be mindful… but I hate the idea of mindfulness
I get it. For some of us, just hearing the word ‘mindfulness’ creates a knee-jerk reaction. It might summon to mind images of gurus, flowing robes, and crystals, or other New Age symbols that don’t quite feel like us. Fear not, mindfulness is still, of course, accessible to you.
Dan Harris, author of Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics, has created an app, Ten Percent Happier: Meditation Daily, that nixes the woo-woo and goes straight for the science, providing a two-week meditation course of video and audio lessons. It’s simple and practical - no altering required.