Researchers in mind wandering believe that we spend an average of half our waking hours daydreaming. If taken together with sleep, it means we are not present or in a dream for 2/3rds of our day. Although this can have benefits, such as dreaming of a holiday or pleasant memory, unfortunately the majority of our mind wanderings are negative- worrying about a future event, or ruminating about something that happened and wishing to put it right. We tend to have repetitive, “sticky” thoughts, going over the same old scenarios – money worries, relationship worries, time and time again.
Mindfulness offers mind training that brings us into the present moment. Through practising meditation we can recognise when we have wandered into a dreamlike state and gently bring ourselves back using a “support” such as our breathing. Like everything, the more we practise, the better we get at it. Through observation of our internal experience – thoughts, emotions and feelings in the body, we can become open, curious and accepting of these experiences, even ingrained, uncomfortable ones. Why do this?. As Buddhist commentator John Aske says “What is suppressed is expressed. If you push it out of sight in one place, it just pops up somewhere else in another guise”.
Since mindfulness was bought to the West, there has been an explosion of research into its effects, with positive outcomes being shown for many mental health and pain conditions. The initial programme created by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction), was initially to treat chronic pain, but has now become better known for treating mental health conditions, such as stress, anxiety, low mood, substance abuse, eating disorders and depression.
An eight week mindfulness course, with regular daily practise, has been shown to have positive effects on all these areas, as well as brain imaging showing increases in grey matter concentration in the regions that process memory, emotional regulation and perspective taking. Regular mindfulness practise has also been shown to make us more compassionate, improve our relationships, it can decrease rumination and help us improve planning and making better decisions. It has even been shown to make us more moral!
People often ask whether mindfulness is just another passing novelty. The evidence is clearly against this as it is now becoming introduced into education, to help combat the rise in stress and anxiety in school children. It is being bought into the pain treatment field, and becoming a common first line treatment for depression, which accounts for the two biggest health burdens in society. Mindfulness has even been introduced to the Houses Of Parliament. It can also be of great benefit to people without any of the aforementioned difficulties, as mindfulness offers an often profound, life changing opportunity for everyone to change and enrich their daily lives.
Like most things in life, you tend to get out of it what you put into it. So learning tends to be steeper for those that have a regular daily practise.