Our Health & Wellbeing Editor, Ruth Cocksedge, considers how the Buddhist tradition of mindfulness helps with anxiety and can bring calm and compassion into our day-to-day lives.
Mindfulness is the in-thing right now. Everyone, it seems, is practicing it: the military, school children, prisoners, physiotherapists, psychologists and psychotherapists. As well as Buddhist monks and yogi, of course. Mindfulness is the practice of present moment awareness; noticing thoughts, feelings, physical sensations. By focussing on our five senses we can practice awareness of what they bring us moment by moment, and, over time, achieve a greater sense of wellbeing. It is a modern-day application of an ancient practice of meditation, arising from the Buddhist tradition, and taken up through the work of doctors and psychologists such as Jon Kabat-Zinn and Mark Williams (you can see an article about this by Professor Mark Williams here). They have developed some clinical treatment methods using mindfulness and yielded fruitful results so that the practise has been taken up widely in mental and physical health services.
So, as a practitioner psychologist, providing talking therapy to people with anxiety and depression, I’ve read the research, and done the training; I know mindfulness can work. But in order to recommend it, I should really practice it. This is an ethical requirement. Walk the walk, not just talk the talk – although I haven’t heard of a talking mindfulness practice, but there is a walking mindfulness practice. Mostly it is about sitting still, or as one children’s book about it says “sitting still like a frog”. Joking aside, I know from personal experience that mindfulness can help me quiet my mind and stop over-thinking. I know I can come out of a short practice and feel a bit like I’ve given my brain a warm bath. But every time I recommend it to a client, I feel obliged to say “I know this works, but I don’t practice regularly myself. It’s good when I do. See what you make of it”.
There is substantial evidence that mindfulness can really help people with psychological problems particularly with recurrent episodes of feeling low – really low, can’t-get-out-of-bed low. In medical parlance these are “recurrent depressive episodes”. But trying to learn mindfulness when very low can be counter-productive. It is important to note that this has to take place after recovery from depression, in order to prevent a relapse, and improve well-being.
Mindfulness is not a panacea, any more than diazepam or anti-depressants.
When depressed, we often ruminate, going over and over the past, in an attempt to find out where we went wrong. We can also be self-critical, sometimes about our own mood state; a sort of self-inflicted “snap out of it”. A variation on this theme is worrying too much. There is a diagnostic term for this too: “Generalised Anxiety Disorder”. Then overthinking is future-based. “What if I don’t pass my exam?” “What if I’m made redundant?” “What if I lose my home?” and so on and on. Whether we are perseverating about past or future, thinking too much can take over. Mindfully staying with what is in one’s mind right now can be an enormous challenge.
Here’s an example. If I keep Hannah, Lucy Writers’ editor, waiting a long time for a contribution, what could happen? I could start to feel stressed, anxious, even guilty. This could turn into self-recrimination, and I could begin to imagine the worst that could happen. A second career in journalism down the drain perhaps? Humiliation in front of my colleagues at LWP? Guilt at wasting peoples’ time, and bigging myself up by volunteering to be Health and Well-being editor? The possibilities can proliferate ad infinitum – if I let them. And sometimes I do. Most of these are hypothetical of course, and therefore bogus. But – and this is not bogus – being mindful when your mind is very active predicting negative outcomes for yourself and others is hard to practice. If not impossible.
Contemplating catastrophe might help me finish this article. There are some advantages to worrying. But stewing on it for any length of time is only going to make me feel worse.
…Why shouldn’t you, I, all of us, have an equal right to a little compassion?
So how can we manage what goes through our heads? Is mindfulness the only way? What if it opens us up to more and more negative and anxious thinking? This can happen. Mindfulness is not a panacea, any more than diazepam or anti-depressants.
Here’s an alternative. Most of us are pretty good at being kind to others, but we aren’t as good at cutting ourselves the same slack. Turning around our self-criticisms can be revealing. When you catch yourself giving yourself a hard time, ask: what would I say to a close friend caught in a similar mental trap? I expect you’d say, “Don’t be so hard on yourself. You’re a good person. You’re only human”. This is likely what you need to hear, and the simple shift of perspective can be surprisingly eye opening. It may be an unfamiliar idea, but why shouldn’t you, I, all of us, have an equal right to a little compassion?
Here’s a Buddhist blessing to try. It’s completely free, safe to try at home and doubles as a loving kindness mindfulness exercise, if you want to use it that way:
May you be happy. May you be at peace. May you be free from suffering.
May all beings be happy. May all beings be at peace. May all beings be free from suffering.
May I be happy. May I be at peace. May I be free from suffering.
Ruth Cocksedge is a practitioner psychologist, writer and teacher of creative writing. She often fails to take her own advice. Tweet to her @CocksedgeRuth or, if you’d like to contribute to our Health & Wellbeing section, write to Ruth at firstname.lastname@example.org