Stop for a second. Where are you at this very moment? Are you right here, right now, fully focused as you read these words, or has your mind taken flight and gone AWOL – as usual?
If you’re worrying about tomorrow’s deadline, your daughter’s ballet exam or the dry-cleaning you have to pick up later today, you may well be in need of some mindfulness training.
Mindfulness is not a new concept. Although its origins are steeped in the deep and ancient wisdom of Buddhism and yogic practice, it has been put on the map in recent times by many international speakers and authors such as:
- Eckhart Tolle, who wrote The Power of Now (New World Library) and became a household name after being featured on Oprah.
- Motivational speaker Dr John Demartini, whose method aims to bring 'an individual’s conscious mind to states of presence'.
- And Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor emeritus of medicine and the founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in the US.
Initially, says Linda Kantor, a counselling psychologist and yoga teacher who is also co-director of the MBSR clinic in Cape Town, Dr Kabat-Zinn’s technique was specifically developed for patients who were diagnosed with chronic physical and psychological conditions and who had been told that they had to live with their conditions but had no idea how to do this.
"Mindfulness training can be beneficial to anyone interested in exploring and cultivating present-moment awareness," she explains. "The philosophy behind it is that when you’re in the moment, you’re more able to connect with what’s happening on a physical and emotional level in your body. You also become more aware of where your mind is going and learn to bring it back to the present and pay more attention.
"As a result you’re able to catch yourself when you’re living mindlessly – gulping down meals, raging in traffic, panicking about deadlines – and start responding to situations instead of reacting to them, which makes coping a whole lot easier. Living mindfully doesn’t remove life’s problems or stresses; it teaches you a different approach that can make them a lot more manageable."
When things go wrong in your life, what’s the first thing you do? Do you seek distractions or anaesthetise yourself from what you’re feeling or experiencing by turning to food, alcohol or cigarettes, or do you throw yourself into work or spend hours at the gym and then find chaos erupting in your life, your body or your relationships?
"Mindfulness," says Kantor, "teaches you how to turn towards not only what is 'pleasant' but also to what is 'unpleasant' by tapping into your own inner wisdom. The more you see the benefits of doing this, the more resilient you can become.
"When you undergo mindfulness training, you’re taught not only how to manage stress and understand the mind-body connection but also how to reclaim your sense of being right here, right now, fully aware and appreciative of the moments in your life.
"You’ll start practising some form of mindfulness daily – sitting and walking meditation and yoga – and will learn to notice the effects of doing this in your daily life. And you’ll discover that by setting aside some time during the day to just be instead of do, subtle yet profound changes can occur."
Transform your life
Living mindfully has many spin-offs. You may find yourself eating more healthily because you’ve taken the time to slow down and get more in touch with your body, your thoughts and your behaviour. As a result you may start losing the extra weight you’ve been battling with for years.
Being mindful not only impacts positively on your mind, body and spirit but also on your health, your relationships and your career. It balances you, eases stress, anxiety and pain, and can help you to climb off the treadmill and stop running on empty, as these three women discovered:
Rosalind Janse van Rensburg, caterer
"I’ve always struggled with my weight and have been obese for about 10 years. I’m an emotional binge-eater and no diet I’ve tried has worked. Last August I was battling with my health and was in a very bad space emotionally. I consulted a new dietician and came across the concept of mindfulness for the first time.
"I was pretty sceptical initially – until you actually grasp the concept it seems far too simple to be effective. The first thing I had to do was find my own eating routine. I chose to eat three meals and two snacks a day – one in the late afternoon and one in the evening. Between those meals and snacks, I had to practice abstinence.
"I then had to look at what I was feeling when I was hungry in order to differentiate between physical hunger and emotional cravings. I had to sit down and experience each meal for what it was and enjoy the food, its textures and the satisfaction of a need. In the past that was almost forbidden and night-time snacks were an absolute no-no.
"The most important aspect of mindfulness is allowing yourself to be in the moment without judgement, which gets rid of all the emotions – the anxiety and guilt – about eating. For me, that was a huge breakthrough. Even when I did binge, I managed to get back into the right space – something I’d never been able to do before. I’d always see myself as a failure, which never allowed me to get back on track. Now I acknowledge that it’s happened, understand the reasons why and self-correct fairly quickly.
"I’ve lost 25kg in six months. Living mindfully has spilled over to other aspects of my life and reconnecting with myself enables me to reconnect with those around me."
Barbara Green-Thompson, palliative carer and trainer; corporate empowerment trainer
"I was introduced to mindfulness by a friend three years ago. In the past, my life was one mad rush of expectations. I had to do two eight-week mindfulness sessions before I was able to grasp the essence of being mindful.
"I became aware of the stress and tension being experienced in my body and the techniques taught on the programme allowed for relaxation, pausing and interventions that helped me to change my perception of the challenges I was experiencing. The pressures in my life didn’t change but my attitude towards them did.
"I work in the field of palliative care and it is imperative that I live in the moment. There are many challenges that you face when caring for the terminally ill and my interest was developing a coping mechanism that could help other carers to cope with their jobs without feeling guilty or anxious.
"The focus of palliative care is not only on pain and symptom management – it’s a holistic perspective that encompasses physical, psychological, social and spiritual aspects too. The technique of focusing and centring on your breath before opening up to how things are “now” was one of the techniques I introduced in my training sessions for undergraduate and postgraduate nurses doing training in palliative care.
"Caring for the carer is of vital importance and being mindful is an essential aspect of this training, as well as in the training I provide for the corporate sector. It changes attitudes from fearful anxiety, stress and tension to a more balanced perception of the reality of the moment.
"Problems are not diminished but your change in attitude opens you to different ways of solving them. It’s not an automatic process but requires daily commitment and practice. As a result I have become a happier, calmer and more balanced person."
Janine Barnett, stress consultant
"Ten years ago I was a ruthless businesswoman, taking on the world. As a mother raising two children on my own, it was a case of doing anything to get to the top. I lived with high levels of stress, anxiety and no balance; I led a life of absolute extremes.
"My partner had died of lung cancer and I was living on the edge: smoking and drinking to try and escape reality. I gave up on therapy because my life was too daunting to look at and work became my 'sanity'.
"I then developed fibromyalgia, which was completely debilitating. I was not in control of myself, I couldn’t look after my children and when my physician was unable to find any physical causes for the pain I was experiencing, he suggested I do a course on mindfulness. I was looking for something apart from medication to quieten me down and to overcome the chaos in my body.
"I did a mindfulness course and it changed my life. For the very first time I felt calm and tranquil. Nothing makes your problems go away but it’s the way you interpret them that gives your mind peace.
'I learnt about the importance of stopping the rumination – the chatter of the mind – because when the mind is at peace, the body goes with it and vice versa. This has been one of the most rewarding aspects of mindfulness for me.
"Today I’m a completely different person. I haven’t touched a cigarette in 10 years and continue to practise mindfulness every day. If I don’t breathe and am not mindful, I’m in pain. When you don’t live in the moment you focus on the past, which leads to confusion for the mind, body and soul.
"I’m a better mother and have changed my profession because I want to help other women who live under so much strain. I now work as a stress consultant teaching mindfulness as part of a stress-management programme."
Linda Kantor has the following tips:
- When you’re in the shower or bath, be aware of the sensation of the water. Instead of focusing on your to-do list, consciously guide your mind back to your body and what you’re experiencing, now.
- Be present at one meal each day: no newspaper, TV or other distractions. Use eating as your meditation practice. Can you taste the food? Differentiate the flavours? Slow down the act of eating?
- Before going into a meeting or stressful situation, take three minutes to be aware of your breath; feel its movement through your body. It’s a great way of bringing yourself back into the here and now.
- Turn activities that you do mindlessly into mindfulness practices, e.g. washing the dishes, taking out the rubbish.
(Photo of woman smelling daisies from Shutterstock)
To find out more about mindfulness and mindfulness training in South Africa, visit the Institute of Mindfulness website at www.mindfulness.org.za or contact Linda Kantor on 021 424 7914 or Dr Simon Whitesman on 021 480 6177 who will be able to refer you to a practitioner in your area. Other useful websites include www.mbsr.co.za and be-awake.co.za
(This article was originally published in Femina magazine)