What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally - Jon Kabat-Zinn
Whenever we worry about the future or go over events from the past, we are not really living in the present moment. This can also happen when we are completing tasks, but our mind is distracted or 'elsewhere'. Common examples of 'not being in the present moment' can look like:
- Procrastinating about getting something done
- Worrying about a future task or event
- Ruminating about something unpleasant that has happened in the past.
Of course, there are times when we do need to plan for the future or reflect on the past. It is also natural for our minds to lose focus and wander at times. However, if we spend too much time caught up in our thoughts or feelings rather than being present with current activities, we function as if on 'autopilot': the body is in one place, but the mind is in another.
Too much time on 'autopilot' can result in falling into repeated patterns of thinking and reacting which can be unhelpful in the longer term. Not being in the present can also lead to a lack of engagement in life and loss of connectedness to others.
What is mindfulness meditation
Mindfulness meditation involves learning to counteract the tendency for the mind to wander away from the present. We use a point of focus (often the breath) to learn to 'train the brain' to become more aware of the present, more easily. We do this with kindness and compassion for ourselves, learning to let go of judgements and finding new ways of responding when we encounter our habitual patterns of thinking and behaving.
What are the benefits of meditation?
Mindfulness has been shown to have significant benefits in terms of stress reduction and a range of health improvements. It is not a 'quick fix' solution and requires investment of time and energy. The 'payoff' for this can be transformative.
Some potential benefits for students (and in more general populations) include:
- Reduced symptoms of stress and emotional distress. In students, this has been achieved even around exam time.
- Increased awareness of the present moment, leading to enriched sensory experience.
- Improvements in attention and concentration.
- Improved health, such as increased immune response, and decreased inflammation, stress hormones, and blood pressure.
The amount of mindfulness meditation practice appears to have a relationship with the benefits, with research indicating that around 20 minutes of daily practice can lead to the effects above.
Tips for practising mindfulness meditation
Mindfulness is about being open to and accepting of our present experience. Since this can be challenging, it takes practice! Here are some of our top tips for practising mindfulness meditation:
- Mindfulness meditation is best learned from guided practice, so listening to a recording or attending a live practice is recommended.
- It is best to set aside time where you do not expect to be interrupted.
- There is no right or wrong way to practice mindfulness!
- There is no outcome to be achieved - we are not even trying to relax, although this can happen.
- The main intention with each mindfulness practice is to be present with whatever our experience is.
These forms of meditation may not be suitable for those who have experienced psychosis, are currently experiencing significant levels of depression or who have a history of traumatic experiences. Under these circumstances, it is best to seek the guidance of a counsellor.
If you begin to feel 'lost' or extremely uncomfortable during the practice - you can bring yourself out of it by gently opening your eyes, gradually moving your body, and reconnecting with the physical world around you.
CAPS guided mindfulness meditation exercises
Mid-day mindful moments
During semester, join a CAPS counsellor in a guided mindfulness meditation during lunchtime every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. This introductory mindfulness session is suitable for all students and staff.
Senses and breath
When we practise mindfulness, we become more and more familiar with our mind, and in particular we learn to recognise the movement of the mind, which we experience as thoughts. Living in the past or in the future is our habit. We almost forget to live in the present moment.
- As you start the practice, you have a sense of your body and you begin to notice the breathing.
- Making use of our senses through seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching we explore what is being experienced in the moment.
In this practice, the intention is simply to 'drop into' your body and experience fully what is there.
- Let go of expectations, of notions of success and failure, or 'doing it well'! This is not a relaxation exercise or a competition. There is no state to be achieved or need to try to influence what is happening.
- Regardless of what happens - discomfort, busy mind, loss of concentration, feeling of boredom - let your experience of the moment to be just that.
- If your mind wanders a lot, note the thoughts as thoughts, and bring your attention gently but firmly back to the body sensations.
- Approach with the attitude, “Ok, so that’s how I am right now”. Accept, and observe changes from moment to moment.
Thoughts and feelings
In this practice, we continue to observe: we watch the activity of our minds, seeing the passing thoughts as 'mental events', rather than as very true or even very important!
- We observe the emotional charge and physical changes that come with some thoughts.
- We note, describe, and move on to the next moment - "There’s my heartbeat", "There’s a fear or emotion", "There's a worrying kind of thought" - then gently lead ourselves back to the breath.
- We become aware of the part of ourselves that knows when we are stressed, angry, excited, or worried. We use the non-judging observer in us and learn to recognise our own habits and patterns of mind, body, and emotion.
One type of mindfulness meditation is mindful breathing, where we are allow the attention to settle in one place, on the sensations of breathing. The aim of this meditation is not to focus on the breath, and to block everything else out, but rather to use breathing as a point to bring our attention back to when we notice that our attention has drifted away.
- When you notice your mind has wandered, acknowledge where it has gone, and gently bring your attention back to the breath.
- Try not to judge where your mind has gone, or berate yourself for losing focus. Instead, remember that it’s normal for minds to wander, and use it as an opportunity to practice focusing your attention again.
This is a directed meditation that invites us to cultivate a warmth, care, friendliness and kindness towards ourselves and others. It is a practice that helps heal emotional pain, supports our ability to cope with suffering, and dismantle the hard walls or defences we create. This meditation is an antidote to the critic or judge that shows up sometimes, and observing ourselves through mindful meditation.
You are invited to listen to the “Introduction to Loving kindness” download before you move into the practice.
The three minute space
This meditation is a great way to break the “automatic pilot” we run on, and to come fully into our present moment: “what is my experience right now?”. The practice means we can “drop into” ourselves throughout our days, and with an awareness of our current condition, can make some wise choices and responses.
Myths about mindfulness
Myths about mindfulness and mindfulness meditation can be a barrier to trying these approaches. Here, we bust the top myths we encounter.
Myth: Mindfulness meditation is about stopping thoughts or getting rid of emotions.
Response: Mindfulness meditation involves developing a non-judgemental and kind acceptance of all experiences, whatever they are, 'good' or 'bad'.
Myth: If my mind wanders, I'm not doing it 'right'.
Response: All minds wander and that includes the minds of even very experienced meditators! The intention in mindfulness meditation is not to 'clear the mind' but to be aware of the patterns of thinking, and to learn to observe this rather than getting caught up in it.
Myth: Mindfulness meditation is a relaxation exercise.
Response: Practising mindfulness meditation can lead to feelings of relaxation and peace, but this may not happen and is not the goal. The aim is to be able to observe your thoughts and feelings as they happen without getting caught up in them.
Myth: If I meditate only when I am stressed, this is practising mindfulness meditation.
Response: Mindfulness meditation is not likely to be of much benefit if we only try to practise when feeling stressed or anxious. Practising mindfulness meditation regularly is like putting money in a savings account to 'cash-in' one day in the future. We need regular practice to see the benefits, both during times when we feel good and when we are struggling.
Recommended mindfulness resources
- Act Mindfully by Dr Russ Harris - Author of “The Happiness Trap”, Russ Harris is a therapist and trainer. On this website, there are free audio records of “Dropping anchor” which are useful for coming into the present moment.
- Jon Kabat-Zinn - An internationally renowned meditation teacher, he conducted research into the therapeutic benefits of mindfulness mediation from the 1970’s onwards. He developed the 8-week Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction program which has been delivered across the globe and has shown to be effective in treating various issues. His website has links to scientific articles, his books and recorded meditations.
- Kristin Neff - An Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas in Austin, she has conducted research into mindfulness and self-compassion, and has developed courses in mindful self-compassion which have been delivered across the world. Her website has links to research, guided meditation, and self-compassion exercises.
- Sharon Salzberg - A meditation teacher, speaker, and author, she has written many books and has been featured in magazines and on television. Sharon also has a podcast called The Metta Hour.
- Tara Brach - A clinical psychologist and meditation teacher, her teachings blend Western psychology and Eastern spiritual practices. Her website offers links to articles and interviews, further reading, online courses and mediations for purchase.
- Headspace - A UK-based website and app, this website has useful information about how mindfulness meditation can help improve sleep and reduce stress. There are free trials available alongside paid meditation packages focused on specific themes such as insomnia.
- Insight timer - An app which offers a meditation timer with the option to select bell sounds for individually determined time periods. There is also access to thousands of guided meditations from various practitioners.
- Plum village - Plum village is a monastic community in Southern France founded by Zan Master Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay). The app offers free content with mediations guided by Thich Nhat Hanh and other monastic teachers.
- Smiling Mind - Download this app for free daily meditations.
- Mindfulness for Wellbeing and Peak Performance - Free 4-week online mindfulness meditation course written and delivered by Monash University staff.
- 'Mindfulness: a practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world.' by Mark Williams and Danny Penman
- 'Mindful learning.' by Dr Craig Hassed and Dr Richard Chambers
- 'Real change.' by Sharon Salzberg
- 'Self-compassion.' by Kristin Neff
- 'True refuge: finding peace and freedom in your own awakened heart.' by Tara Brach
- 'Wherever you go, there you are.' by Jon Kabat-Zinn
If you'd like more support, come along to one of our workshops or make an appointment for individual counselling.