Manchester Art Gallery

What is mindfulness?

Paying attention in a particular way in the present moment, non-judgementally

So what do I actually do?

Mindfulness consists of paying attention to one of three things; either our breath, physical sensations in the body or one of our senses. And gently bringing our attention back whenever the mind inevitably wanders off.

So, for example – in a 10 minute mindfulness practice we might sit, listen, keep listening to whatever sounds are happening around us, simply sitting…and listening… noticing sounds.

Sooner or later our mind will drift off into thinking mode – daydreams, worries, planning – and we’ll get to a moment when we realise that we’re no longer paying attention to the sounds and instead we’re thinking about something else altogether. This noticing is a moment of mindfulness.

When this happens we simply notice where the mind went to. So, we register the thought ‘Oh look, I’m thinking about that email I need to respond to.’ We simply notice it – and this is really important bit – without giving ourselves a hard time, we escort our attention back to where we had intended it to be (which in this example was listening to sounds). We keep returning our attention every time the mind drifts away. This could be a couple of times or could be 100 times. It really doesn’t matter; it’s the noticing and the returning that counts. And doing this gently, without self-criticism.

All these little pockets of pause throughout the day have been proven to gently reduce stress and anxiety.

But there are other ways to be mindful. Throughout the day, stop and take notice of what’s happening using our senses. For example, when we’re on the bus we can close our eyes for a moment or two and notice all the different sounds around us. Or slow down and really taste the first three bites of our delicious sandwich before going back to responding to that email. Instead of automatically checking your phone every time you’re in a queue, look around and notice what you can see – details in architecture, different shades of green in nature or curious reflections in glass-fronted buildings. All these little pockets of pause throughout the day have been proven to gently reduce stress and anxiety.

Why is mindfulness good for our health and wellbeing?

Paying attention to a sensory experience in this way enables us to observe our thoughts as they arise in our minds, moment by moment. And this act of observing thoughts can dramatically change our relationship to them. No longer automatically acting on them or accepting their validity but rather seeing them for what they are, thoughts.

Thoughts, not as facts or absolute truths. And with practice, we come to the profound understanding that all thoughts and feelings are transient. Including negative ones.

And this is the cornerstone to good mental health and wellbeing.

We might think that becoming more aware of our thoughts and feelings would not be a good or helpful thing to do, especially if we’re stressed or feeling down. In fact, it might seem better to ignore them or spend our energy on finding ways to rid ourselves of them. But this is not the case. What we resist, persists.

What does the science tell us?

Studies have shown that over time, mindfulness brings about long-term changes in mood and levels of happiness and wellbeing.

We’re more curious. We’re more emotionally resilient and more compassionate

Clinical trials performed by Oxford University have proven that mindfulness can be extremely effective in preventing depression. But you don’t have to be clinically unwell to benefit from it; it also helps people to respond to the stresses of modern life too. Many of us are anxious, exhausted, the demands of life can be overwhelming. We rush around from one task or obligation to the next and our minds and emotional systems experience little respite from all the external demands on our attention.

Neuroscientists have shown changes in the brain that occur when people practice mindfulness; one of which includes improving your brain’s ability to manage stress.

MRI scans have shown that after an 8 week course of mindfulness meditations the amygdala (the brain’s fight, flight or freeze centre) appears to shrink.  This primal region of the brain, associated with fear and emotion, is involved in the initiation of the body’s response to stress. Brain scans taken before and after the participants’ meditation regimen also found increased grey matter in the hippocampus, an area important for learning and memory.

The images show a reduction of grey matter in the amygdala, the region connected to anxiety and stress.

Calmer, happier, more creative…

The practice of mindfulness can have an incredibly positive impact on our lives. Not only can our mood lift but our memory and ability to learn improves, creativity increases and we are able to focus and concentrate better than before. Our emotional systems experience some much needed respite, our stress levels decrease which is good for our health, both physical and mental and this is good for our quality of life.

We’re more curious. We’re more emotionally resilient and more compassionate to ourselves and to others. And, of course, we’re happier.