This is the first of eight posts that will follow the 8-week mindfulness course outlined in Professor Mark Williams and Dr. Danny Penman’s book, “Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World.” To sign up to receive all 8 weeks of the course by email, click here.
Mindfulness is the specific action of focusing on something, like breath, a sensation in the body, or a phrase, and keeping your attention there gently for a period of time.
When attention wanders, which it inevitably does, we escort it back to our chosen focus. This action of focus and refocus, it turns out, physically restructures our brain and impacts our body in profound ways.
The Science behind Mindfulness
Mindfulness is a specific and very accessible type of meditation, a practice that has been in the mainstream long enough to attract a wealth of scientific studies that now point to its positive physical, emotional and mental benefits. For example, studies on meditation include findings like:
– Regular meditation makes you happier, which is linked to living longer;
– Regular meditators have less anxiety, depression and irritability, as well as improved memory, reaction times and mental and physical stamina;
– Regular meditators also have better and more fulfilling relationships (which makes sense when you take into account the benefits above);
– Meditation boosts the immune system to help fight disease, reduces key indicators of chronic stress, and has been found to be effective at reducing the impact of serious conditions like chronic pain and cancer. It can even help to reduce drug and alcohol dependence;
– An 8-week course in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (similar to the one outlined in “Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World”) has been shown to not only significantly reduce the chances of suffering from depression, but also to reduce the likelihood of relapse by 40-50% for people who have suffered three or more previous episodes.
This is an especially big deal because 10% of the global population is currently considered clinically depressed and WHO estimates that by 2020, depression will be the second-biggest global health burden.
If you’re finding all of this a bit hard to integrate into how you currently think about meditation, have a peek at the wealth of studies in the endnotes and you’ll start to see why mindfulness — a particularly accessible meditation technique — is quickly becoming recognized as an essential tool for wellness and what the aid community refers to as personal and professional resilience.
These last few months, I’ve been working intensely on a project that we manage through my tech company. A few weeks ago, the long hours, intense workload and coordination across multiple time zones and teams had accumulated to leave me feeling under-resourced, irritable and wondering what had happened to my usually strong boundaries and good lifestyle design. At the same time, I was working on the wellness curriculum for Singularity University’s Graduate Studies Program, where I’ll be teaching this summer, and lucky for me, I came across Williams and Penman’s book and their eight-week course.
I already have a strong daily yoga and meditation practice, but this time I needed additional support, so I got started with the book and began the program. I’d like to invite you to accompany me and do the same.
For the next eight weeks, I’ll be posting about each week’s focus in “Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World,” which I highly encourage you to buy for yourself. Of course, you’re also welcome to follow along without it, and there are plenty of free resources on the book’s website.
Investing in your mental, physical and emotional well-being will have wide-reaching effects on all aspects of your life. I know this because I’ve started to experience some of the benefits of the practice already — and I’ve been practicing yoga for over 30 years and meditating for a decade. That’s why I want to set off on this journey together, and I want you to come with me.
Common Reasons not to Meditate
Some of you might be put off by the idea of meditating. Given its decades-long connection in the west with chanting yogis and weird cults, I don’t blame you. But this is different. Mindfulness is just mental training, pure and simple, and isn’t linked to any mindset, philosophy or belief system.
Maybe you’ve tried meditation or mindfulness practices before, but you stopped because you got distracted and it was too difficult to continue. Our authors are leading experts on mindfulness and mental health from Oxford University and their program has helped hundreds of thousands of people around the world. The approach is simple and, even better, there’s no right way of doing it. Stick with the program and you simply cannot fail.
Also, you don’t have to sit on the floor in a stereotypical yoga pose, either. Lying flat on a carpet or mat, or finding a comfortable straight-backed chair will do.
I know you’re extremely busy; this journey will not take much of your time. My posts after this one will be short and accessible, as are the book chapters, weekly practices and recorded daily meditations. Only patience and persistence are required.
Also, research has shown that you more than “make up” the time you take for meditation in regained bandwidth, focus and literally more time to do things, since you’re no longer caught in so many mental and emotional loops. Once we become aware of how we’re checking-out, we can start to free ourselves to be awake and aware, and more in control of how we spend our time.
Why Do We Need Mindfulness?
Before we get into this week’s content, I highly encourage you to buy the book and read at least the first chapter before skipping to chapter five, which covers week one. Williams and Penman expertly teach how old habits and patterns can affect our current thoughts and moods to hijack our happiness. I’m only going over it in a cursory way here, so do yourself a favor and go for a deeper dive with them.
Basically, feelings, especially negative ones, have a strong gravitational pull and often seem like they’re coming out of nowhere, when really they’re a product of the mind looking to the past to try to determine the present or freak out in advance about the future. When we come up against these moods, we like to try to solve them by thinking.
We try to think our way out of all of our problems, even the internal ones that constellate around our emotions. I mean no disrespect to the logical mind — it is truly a wonderful thing — but there are plenty of problems that thinking can’t solve.
How many times, when you feel sad, does talking to yourself actually convince you to feel better? What about when you’re stressed, and you tell yourself that if only you were better at X, or more efficient and productive around Y, you wouldn’t be in this situation? It only makes things worse. Instead of trying to think our way out of this, we can learn to practice gentle and compassionate self-awareness.
Our thoughts, feelings, impulses and bodily sensations are all interconnected. When one starts to suffer, the rest of us is soon suffering too, often in a negative feedback loop that is difficult to step out of, even when we recognize how harmful it is to our well-being.
For example, thinking to yourself, “Well, this isn’t working out at all,” makes you feel tense and upset. Your body may start to hold this tension in your shoulders as they creep up towards your ears, and your stomach may start to clench uncomfortably. You might have the impulse to escape somewhere, or to beat up on yourself even more to punish yourself for having such an unhelpful and disempowering reaction.
We often think of feelings as focused on others, but more often than not, we direct them at ourselves. Over years and years, we develop habitual patterns of responding in this interconnected way that are mostly unconscious but can be deeply painful and cause real harm. This is why one negative thought, like “I knew they didn’t like me,” can trigger a cascade of negative emotions, bodily sensations and behavioral impulses that go on for hours and even days. These well-worn grooves of stress response can become extremely sticky and hard to step out of. Mindfulness training, like the one we’re about to embark on, gives us the tools to “escape the gravitational pull of our emotional set-point,” as the authors put it.
Will You Accept my Invitation?
We’re about to get to the content in the first week of practice, but first, I need to ask you something. Will you join us?
If you’ve read about the benefits that the practice of mindfulness can bring to you, and you’re eager to give them a try to see for yourself, I want you to commit to this journey. We’re going to spend the next eight weeks practicing together as a community, and there is tremendous power in that. But more important than the energy of the collective is the commitment you make to yourself right now.
I invite you to say yes to this journey. Gather yourself and decide that you’ll come with us. You can even send me a private email (email@example.com) to witness your commitment, if you like. This is the first step, your commitment to yourself to learn these tools and put them in practice — just for the next eight weeks. After that, you can take what you like and leave the rest.
If you’re in, let’s get started.
Mindfulness Practice Week 1: Waking Up to the Autopilot
Week One of “Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World” focuses on realizing where we’re going through the motions of our lives on autopilot. Autopilot is helpful because it allows us to multitask, which is a huge evolutionary advantage. But when we take on too much and become overwhelmed, we are left feeling distracted, scattered, indecisive, forgetful and exhausted, even if we don’t’ know exactly where these feelings come from.
This week, we’re going to focus on waking up to when we’re on autopilot. There’s a lot more detail in chapter five of the book. My purpose here is to complement, and not to replace, that content.
Here are our four practices for this week:
– The raisin meditation: This involves a very slow experience of examining and eating a raisin or another small piece of dried fruit or nut. You will hold it, see it, touch it and smell it before placing it in your mouth. You will practice heightening your awareness of what you are experiencing. Then, you will chew it, swallow it, note its aftereffects and reflect on the process. You just need to do this once. And, in the interest of full disclosure, I used chocolate.
– Waking up to routine: Pick one daily activity that you’re going to practice mindfulness around this week. It could be showering, eating, drinking, brushing your teeth, getting dressed, whatever you like. Notice, when you’re doing this activity, how your body feels. What sensations do you experience? Where does your mind want to go? What happens when you slow down, despite being tempted to rush? Feel free to reflect on this afterwards as well.
– Habit busters: We often do things so automatically that we don’t even realize it. How many weekly meetings do you go to, or meals do you have, where you’re sitting in the same chair? This week, change chairs. Notice how this shifts your experience and awareness.
– Weekly meditation: This week’s meditation focuses on grounding the mind and body by focusing on the breath. The breath is a powerful tool to create awareness because it’s always with us, doesn’t need conscious thought to operate and is a sensitive gauge of how we’re feeling in the moment. We’ll start this practice of anchoring into the present moment with the breath by practicing a guided meditation twice a day. You can download the audio for the 8-minute meditation, “Mindfulness of Body and Breath,” here.
The full list of audio meditations from “Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World” is here.
I’m so happy that you’re joining us for our eight-week mindfulness journey. Please reach out to me (firstname.lastname@example.org) to tell me how you’re doing, what you’re experiencing, and where you need support.
If you’d like to get Expat Backup delivered straight to your Inbox, you can subscribe here. It is my pleasure to be with you on this journey to greater health and happiness. I’ll see you next week.
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