What is mindfulness: New-age nonsense or the answer to our mental health crisis?

what is mindfulness?

I confess, I’m a worrier. Give me a comfy bed and come 3am my brain will merrily start whizzing with all kinds of useless thoughts: did I direct that customer last week to Boots when I meant M&S? Will I pass my latest assignment? Do we have enough milk for breakfast? Will my children ever be able to afford to leave home? Of course, it’s completely pointless me worrying about any of these things – either they’re trivial or they’re things I can’t do anything about, certainly not by worrying about them at 3am anyway. But my brain just won’t switch off. So when I had the chance to have a little taster of Mindfulness I was intrigued – was this the key to a better night’s sleep or something to be filed away with snake oil? Can we really think ourselves well?

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness has its roots in meditation, traditionally practised in religions such as Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. Meditation isn’t fundamentally a religious practice though, it’s just used to still the mind in preparation for prayer. In recent decades this kind of meditation has been used as a treatment for a range of issues with incredible results – so much so that it’s recommended by the NHS. It’s been found to reduce anxiety and stress, help people to cope with chronic pain and reduce the likelihood of long-term sufferers of depression from having a relapse.

How does it work?

Mindfulness is all about being fully aware of the present moment – for example, eating a raisin and really paying attention to its appearance, smell, taste and texture rather than chomping it down without noticing whilst making a mental ‘to do’ list.

The first exercise I was taught was to pay attention to my breathing or a part of my body. This helps to settle and stabilise the mind, and also acts as an ‘anchor’ that can is used is later exercises. It’s not as easy as it sounds because our minds naturally drift off and start thinking about all kinds of things, but the trainer told us not to worry about that, just notice it’s happened and go back to the anchor.

The next stage was to notice my thoughts without dwelling on them. I found it helpful to think of them as clouds in the sky, arriving and then drifting past. By observing them, without getting caught up in them or trying to fix them, I could start to recognise my feelings and what was important to me. It seems that stepping back to observe our thoughts stops them taking control and gives space for new possibilities to emerge.


The final exercise was simply called kindness – repeating a simple phrase like, ‘may I be kept safe and may I know kindness’. It’s so easy to have negative thoughts about ourselves and blame ourselves when things go badly. This means that we can run away from problems rather than risk facing our own shortcomings. Being kind to ourselves doesn’t mean pretending we’re perfect, it means accepting that despite our mistakes we are still worthwhile people. It seems a bit counterintuitive, but loving ourselves, warts and all, helps us have the courage to approach problems and find new ways to deal with them.

My experience of mindfulness

I only had a tiny experience of mindfulness – typically it’s taught over 8 weeks. Even so, I’ve already found it helpful for dealing with those night-time worry sessions. And it makes sense to me that living in the present moment is better than being trapped in the guilt of the past or the worries of the future – after all, the present moment is the only place where we can actually experience life, with all its messy beauty. But it’s impossible to really convey what mindfulness is in words, it’s one of those things you have to experience, like eating a piece of chocolate or listening to Mozart. A quick google search will bring up a range of courses you can do in person, online or on your own. I certainly plan to find a course to do, and offer it to my children too.

Healthy thinking, healthy me

The mind is a complex and mysterious thing. We may never fully understand it, but it does seem clear that the way we think can have a profound impact on our physical and mental health, and clinical evidence shows that Mindfulness is one way of training ourselves to think in a healthier way. With mental health issues being so prevalent in the UK, it makes sense for all of us to find ways to preserve our wellbeing. It’s important to say that Mindfulness is not a replacement for other forms of medical treatment such as anti-depressants, but it seems to help prevent everyday anxiety and stress from spiralling into something more serious, which can only be a good thing.

For more information, you might like to check out:

Mindfulness – NHS (www.nhs.uk)

(43) “Introduction to Mindfulness” Professor Mark Williams – YouTube

Photo: John Hain on Pixabay



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