Mindfulness meditation is becoming increasingly popular with more and more people using it to relax or cope with stress, but what actually is it and can it really help improve your quality of life?
What is mindfulness meditation?
Mindfulness is a popular type of meditation. It is a way to increase your awareness of the present moment, using techniques like breathing and yoga.
It can help us be more aware of our thoughts so that we are better able to manage them and not become overwhelmed.
What are the benefits of meditation?
The Mental Health Foundation supports mindfulness as a tool to help you live your life, improve general wellbeing and treat depression. Evidence shows that it can help with a number of problems, such as recurrent depression, anxiety disorders, addictive behaviour, chronic pain and many more mental and physical problems.
NICE, the UK's National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, has recommended that Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy is an option offered to prevent relapse for people who are currently well but who have experienced recurrent depression. Your GP would need to decide if the therapy is suitable for your situation before offering access to the treatment.
Meditation is also recommended by Cancer Research UK as a popular and useful form of complementary therapy, because it can help people with cancer cope with problems such as pain, difficulty sleeping, tiredness, feeling sick and high blood pressure.
Do you have to be religious to meditate?
It's not necessary, we're told by Dr Danny Penman, an expert on mindfulness meditation: 'Mindfulness was originally a Buddhist practice developed about 2000 years ago. All religions practice some form of meditation. It was certainly very common in Christianity until the late middle ages.
'But Judaism, and Islam as well, all practice meditation, but you don't have to be religious to practice it at all. Nowadays, it's an entirely secular practice. It's like yoga - it's like many of these things - they have their roots in religion, but you don't need to be religious to practice them. There're plenty of atheists who go to yoga or practice mindfulness.'
What the meditators say
Christine Jay is 66 years old and started practicing regular meditation 3 years ago. Along with her daily practice, Christine attends a weekly meditation group.
She says: 'Initially my husband and I just used to go once a week to our group and we really enjoyed that and then I went on a retreat, where we meditated several times a day.
By the end of that week, I was in a really different place, which was absolutely wonderful. I now try and meditate at least once a day for 25 minutes.'
John Bradford, a 53 year old who has meditated regularly for 21 years, initially found meditation difficult: 'When I started I couldn't believe how chaotic my mind was! But with regular practice, initially just a few minutes a day, after a week or 2, I was already seeing some results and the meditation gradually became easier.
My practice took a huge boost from going on a week's retreat a few months later and from then on I never looked back.'
What concrete benefits have both of the meditators felt as a result of their practice?
Christine says she feels 'calmer and more in control', it has 'put things in perspective' and that she no longer gets upset about trivial things.
The meditation also had a calming effect on John and helped him cope with being a carer for his mother: 'I would say nowadays that the main benefits I experience from meditation are reducing stress, including a deep physical relaxation which can be quite invigorating. It also gives me a calmer and clearer perspective of my life situation and is usually quite an enjoyable experience.'
Can you teach yourself meditation?
‘Yes you can’, says Dr Danny Penman: ‘If you are generally healthy and just trying to cope with the stresses and strains of daily life, you can learn it from a book; you can learn it from a CD.’
The following websites give more information about mindfulness meditation and offer information to help you get started:
- Be Mindful is a website from the Mental Health Foundation that offers more information about mindfulness, including a list of recommended resources and a guide to finding courses in your area.
- Cancer Research UK offers information on how cancer patients can benefit from meditation, including information about how you practise meditation, finding a meditation teacher and the possible harmful effects of meditation.
- Frantic World is a website from Dr Danny Penman, author of Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World. The website offers a number of free resources as well as free audio-guided meditations.
Try it yourself
This meditation exercise from Dr Danny Penman’s book is ideal for beginners and does not require any special equipment.
It demonstrates the basic technique and takes just a few minutes and it will leave you profoundly relaxed.
- If your condition allows it, sit erect but relaxed in a straight-backed chair with your feet on the floor. If you cannot sit, then lie on a mat or blanket on the floor or on your bed. Allow your arms and hands to be as relaxed as possible.
- Gently close your eyes and focus your awareness on the breath as it flows into and out of your body. Feel the sensations the air makes as it flows in through your mouth or nose, down your throat and into your lungs. Feel the expansion and subsiding of your chest and belly as you breathe. Focus your awareness on where the sensations are strongest. Stay in contact with each in-breath and each out-breath. Observe it without trying to alter it in any way or expecting anything special to happen.
- When your mind wanders, gently shepherd it back to the breath. Try not to criticise yourself. Minds wander. It’s what they do. The act of realising that your mind has wandered – and encouraging it to return to focus on the breath – is central to the practice of mindfulness.
- Your mind will eventually become calm – or it may not. If it becomes calm, then this may only be short-lived. Your mind may become filled with thoughts or powerful emotions such as fear, anger, stress or love. These may also be fleeting. Whatever happens, simply observe as best you can without reacting to your experience or trying to change anything. Gently return you awareness back to the sensations of the breath again and again.
- After a few minutes, or longer if you prefer, gently open your eyes and take in your surroundings.