“If I met you, I would be talking to you. However, in my head, I might be thinking different things and feeling anxious.” Lucy Roleff, a local musician and illustrator in Melbourne, described her past experience when she was with other people. She used to feel anxious all the time, and made her feel depressed as well. “I used to feel isolated and living in a different world, even though I was with friends.” She explained that her symptoms were something related to anxiety disorder, ‘depersonalisation’. A person who suffers from depersonalisation disorder feels detached from her/ his body and experiences mild identity confusion. If it gets serious, the person may think about suicide.
The first step that Lucy tried to overcome anxiety and depression was to push out all negative thoughts and feelings. “I tried all sorts of affirmation, medication, and psychological therapy, but it did not work for me.” She felt that the goal of all these methods is pushing out negative emotions and thoughts and analysing them, which made her to focus on them more. She explained that it is related to how brain works. “Once people are trying to push away negative thoughts, our brain naturally perceives them as more important.”
One day, she read an article about mindfulness. “Trying to train the brain to accept all thoughts, not just positive ones, observing them and letting them happen, and even welcoming them,” Lucy explained her own definition of mindfulness. She added that some people still want the negative thoughts and emotions to be gone when they observe them, and that is far away from what mindfulness refers to. Understanding the idea of mindfulness and practicing it through meditation was a big step in helping her to overcome anxiety and depression.
Some people believe that distracting negative thoughts and emotions is an efficient way to achieve emotional balance in their life. For example, they watch movies or drink beer to take their minds off them. It can work temporarily, but not in the long term. Firstly, the thoughts and emotions creep back into your brain. Secondly, you may not have a chance to know what kinds of automatic thoughts actually trigger your negative emotions.
If you understand why a negative mood occurs, you can prevent it. Sally Polmear, a mindfulness-meditation instructor at Mindful Meditation Melbourne said, “a negative mood begins as a thought that goes unchecked and that sets in train other thoughts and subsequently develops into a whole mood or way of being in the world at that time.” Sally emphasised the importance of mindfulness as it helps people to check in regularly with our thoughts. According to her explanation, through a mindful state, people can catch their thoughts before they turn into a negative mood triggers.
Mindfulness is not a simple idea for people. “Mindfulness is a non-judgemental awareness of the present moment,” said qualified Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) teacher, Anja Tanhane. “It is not putting aside our good judgement, but rather being open to life as it is, regardless of what is happening – accepting that this is what’s happening right in this moment.”
Sally, who has been practicing and teaching meditation for 13 years, personally believes that mindfulness practice can increase your level of happiness. “I find mindfulness a helpful reminder to catch myself when I am absorbed in worries and plans for the future or caught by regrets of the past, or the myriad other things about which the mind ruminates. When I do mindfully gather my attention into here and now, I feel the release of tension in my body and that has to be a good thing for my physical well-being,” she said.
Anja, who has lectured on mindfulness at the University of Melbourne, explained how mindfulness helped to increase the level of happiness more academically. According to Anja, regular mindfulness practice has been shown to have measurable effects on the brain – for example, it strengthens the central pre-frontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for impulse control, empathy, and self-regulation. Also, the left pre-frontal cortex is activated, which induces positive mood states.
“Over time, we don’t get as aroused, but can also calm ourselves down more easily. This enables us to make better decisions, have greater awareness of other people’s point of view, and become more resilient in the face of challenges,” Anja said. We can go more with the flow of life, rather than constantly demanding that life be a certain way, and then being disappointed when things don’t work out as we think they ‘should’. Mindfulness helps us cultivate qualities such as appreciation, patience, trust, letting go, compassion and gratitude, which lead to an increased level of contentment and happiness.
The three renowned ways to practise mindfulness are Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) therapy, meditation, and yoga. MBSR was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn in the late 1970s to enable hospital patients with severe chronic health conditions to benefit from meditation without having to become a Hindu or Buddhist, or subscribe to a particular religion or philosophy. It uses one aspect of the Buddhist noble eight-fold path, mindful meditation, and brings the benefits of this practice into the Western clinical setting. “This has enabled mindfulness to benefit people from all walks of life, for a wide range of emotional, health and interpersonal challenges,” Anja said.
Sally, who teaches meditation and is studying a Master of Counselling and Psychotherapy, explained the difference between MBSR therapy and traditional meditation and yoga. “I would consider that traditional meditation and yoga ultimately have different purposes of a more transcendental nature, such as investigating the nature of phenomena and ‘self’, whereas MBSR therapy is primarily concerned with reducing stress, anxiety and exhaustion.” She said that MBSR therapy is helpful as well because it helps people to calm their mind which can be considered an important first step for developing insights into the nature of existence.
Anja recommended a daily formal meditation to really gain the benefits of mindfulness. “Our brains have been hard-wired through evolution to be constantly alert to danger even when there is no need to be, and to remember negative experiences far more strongly than positive ones. We have also developed unhelpful habits of thinking over several decades, and these old habitual patterns are very strongly developed in our brains.” Our society as a whole does not nurture mindful ways of living – it encourages us to focus on staying busy, to multi-task, and to distract ourselves. We are also over-stimulated on a daily basis. Mindfulness is a way of life, not a skill. Learning some techniques is helpful, but won’t go far in changing our established patterns. According to Anja’s explanation, it is impossible to simply decide to live more mindfully – between our evolutionary brain, our upbringing, and the society we live in, we simply have no chance. Mindfulness is not something which can be ‘willed’, it is an ongoing practice.
Therefore, what Anja and Sally really want to tell people who want to achieve mindfulness is that MBSR is a form of cognitive-behavioural therapy, teaches basic skills to calm our mind through an eight-week course. Thus, it cannot be an ultimate solution for people who want to live mindfully. People need to practice mindfulness by themselves consistently either through meditation or yoga.
Achieving the state of mindfulness through meditation and yoga seems like a popular trend nowadays. Google Chief Evangelist of Brand Marketing, Gopi Kallayil, talked about ‘How Google uses yoga and meditation to increase productivity’ on Bloomberg Business Week. He said that yoga and meditation help us optimise the most important technology, human body. Why is it better to do one thing at a time? Not at the same time? Our physical and mental systems work much better when we bring all our attention on a single thing. When we try to do five things at the same time, it falls apart. “You can train your mind to be much more sharp and focused instead of being distracted through meditation and yoga,” he said.
Lucy, a mindful musician, illustrator, and writer recommended a daily meditation as well. “I am using applications or online websites like ‘Smiling Mind’ and ‘Tiny Buddha’ to practice mindfulness.” If you are too busy to go to meditation classes every day, you can simply download applications that Lucy recommended and use them whenever you want.
“I still feel anxious whenever I play music in front of people. What I do is just letting them happen, you know, letting my hands shake. I just try to be mindful on what I am doing now,” Lucy said with a lovely smile.
If we do not have any chance to experience the negative emotions in our life, we may not appreciate the positive emotions which make us happy. There is nothing wrong with feeling negative emotions like sad or anger – they are a part of being human. Mindfulness teaches that whenever you feel sad or angry, it’s best to just let it happen. If the negativity stays longer, it is fine. Just know it will be gone soon and try to be mindful. Remember, the mindful state can only be achieved through daily practices like meditation and yoga. You can use the applications or online website, or you can attend a meditation or yoga class. Whatever you choose, it will help you for sure, if you keep doing it.
1. Lucy Roleff: A Melbourne-based Musician, Illustrator, and Writer
2. Sally Polmear: An Experienced Meditation Teacher
3. Anja Tanhane: A Registered Music Therapist, Mindfulness Teacher
4. Gopi Kallayil: Google Chief Evangelist of Brand Marketing