When we think of mindfulness, we typically think of practicing various ways of calming the mind and connecting it to the body – including anything from yoga to meditation. But in a novel approach to understanding mindfulness from a science-based perspective, including recent developments in neuroscience and advances in medicine, there’s even more reason to understand the importance of mindfulness and how it can apply to all areas of your life. Keep reading to get in-the-know and to answer every burning question you have on the hot topic as we interview Jo Dunin, owner of Melbourne Centre for Mindfulness.
Tony and I had both done a course in mindfulness called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Program(MBSR) in 2008 and the experience was life-changing for both of us. We both developed a regular mindfulness meditation practice and after several years we decided we would like to train to teach the program. After completing our training we then became involved in a research study conducted through the University of Melbourne. This study was coordinated by the Departments of Psychiatry and Orthopaedics at St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne and received Australian Research Council funding. It examined the effects of mindfulness training on the experience of patients who had proven osteoarthritis of the hip or knee and who were waiting for joint replacement surgery.
Staff in the hospital saw the benefits that patients were experiencing (improvements in pain and capacity to move around) and they asked if we would offer the program to staff. We began teaching doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, occupational therapists as well as non-clinical staff. After a few years, we realised it would be better for the health professionals to attend the course away from their work environment so we started our own centre in East Melbourne which is just a 10-minute walk from St Vincent’s.
We now teach people from the wider community as well as the health sector. We have also been teaching a mindfulness program specifically for doctors.
Mindfulness can benefit people no matter what their circumstances. We all experience stress. But over time we develop ways of thinking and responding to our stressful experiences that are not necessarily beneficial to us. Those patterns of thinking and feeling are unique to each of us and arise out of our own life experiences. The problem is that we are not aware that these habitual patterns of thinking are not necessarily helpful. Some of us ruminate – we go over and over difficulties trying to problem solve our worries. Or we get into a habit of catastrophising about the future, imagining all sorts of scenarios that never come to pass, exhausting ourselves along the way. When we stop and pay attention to this passing parade of thoughts and feelings we begin to realise how much we spend time in the past or the future and very little being attentive to the present moment. Mindfulness meditation allows us to be accepting of whatever is arising, regardless of our circumstances. This helps us to become more resilient and to have more meaningful and rewarding relationships with those around us. In being present to all our experience whether it is pleasant or not, we are more able to be grateful for the good in our lives. Feeling gratitude regularly is linked to better physical and mental well-being. That is something we all want.
The research study showed that patients who did mindfulness training experienced less pain and improved capacity to move and to manage the stresses of surgery. Some patients even canceled their surgery because their pain was no longer severe enough for them to have the operation. This was even though they still had severe osteoarthritis in their hips or knees. So while nothing changed physically their capacity to manage did change. We all experience pain – mental, emotional or physical and mindfulness offers us a way of relating to that pain differently. As Jon Kabat-Zinn (the founder of MBSR) says “ We can’t stop the waves but we can learn how to surf.”
When we surveyed staff who had done the training we had overwhelmingly positive responses. They experienced benefits in their personal and professional lives. Many felt they were more resilient in the face of very stressful experiences. They were less reactive when things did not go as they hoped or expected. They were less exhausted and more creative in their thinking and problem-solving. Some felt that they were now flourishing rather than just existing.
To varying degrees, we all seek to control circumstances and events that unfold in our lives. We tend to think that if we can make things other than they are, then we will find peace of mind and freedom from the stresses we experience daily. The difficulty with this approach is that we never reach our goal. As we invest more and more effort in controlling our situation, we find ourselves frustrated, more stressed and exhausted. In striving for this never attainable outcome our health and our relationships may also suffer.
Mindfulness offers another way of approaching life. This allows us to meet whatever arises, be it pleasant or unpleasant, with composure, courage and compassion. Mindfulness involves taking a curious and open approach to our experience as it arises without seeking to change that experience.
This way of approaching our lives is in contrast to the idea of trying to always improve ourselves. When we accept ourselves as we are, the things we like and the things we don’t like about ourselves, we can be surprised at how life can become more satisfying and positive change can occur.
People worry that they can’t meditate. Thinking you cannot meditate is a bit like thinking you can’t breathe. Meditation is not about feeling a certain way. It is just simply paying attention to the way you are right now, whether that is pleasant or not. It is about letting the mind be just as it is, not how you think it should be. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says: It’s not about getting somewhere else, but about allowing yourself to be where you already are.
Mindfulness is not about trying to relax. It is not about achieving a particular state of any kind. It is about being present to what is here right now – just as it is.
Mindfulness is not about stopping thoughts. Mindfulness does not encourage us to block thoughts or push them away. Rather it allows us to become more attuned to the patterns of our thinking and to be aware of which patterns of thinking are serving us well and which ones are not helpful.
When we approach a new skill we often strive to “get it right”. Mindfulness is simply paying attention and there is no perfect way of being present to what is arising. For each of us, our awareness of each moment is our experience. It is neither right nor wrong.
Regular daily meditation practice, even as little as 20 minutes a day. Through this regular practice, we become more aware as we go about our daily life. This is what we call informal mindfulness practice: we notice the warmth of the sun and coolness of the breeze, the smile of another, a gesture of kindness no matter how small.
There is one simple thing you can do throughout your day. It is called STOP practice. You can do this as you walk from one meeting to another, or from one task to another. As you sit in your car for a moment when you reach your destination or before you begin a difficult phone call. This can be done in a minute or you can take a longer time to do this slowly. Either way, the more frequently you do this, the more mindful you can become as you go about your day.
The STOP Practice is simply a way of ‘checking in’ with yourself, and interrupting the autopilot habits of distraction, preoccupation and living ahead of ourselves that seem to inhabit so much of our waking lives.
It is also effective when dealing with a stressful or distressing moment. The deliberate focus on the breath firstly, followed by whole-body sensations, and then whatever else is happening in your experience can interrupt being stuck in a cycle of thinking and emoting which can ‘rev up’ distress.
S = Stop and just be present to what is there to be noticed right now.
T = Take a breath. Tune in to the sensations of breathing. Notice where you feel the breath in your body? … Gather your attention and notice the exact sensations of breathing, right now … Focus intently on what the in breath actually feels like, and what the out-breath actually feels like, for a few breath cycles … being present to the rhythm of your breathing.
O = Open to observation. Expanding your awareness to include the whole body. Notice how you are in your body? Is there a sense of tightening or gripping anywhere? A sense of spaciousness or ease? Opening to the feedback in your own body. And also becoming aware of thoughts arising … feelings … checking in with the internal weather of the mind and heart with your awareness. Bringing a friendly interest to your experience, just as you find it, as best you can.
P = Proceed, having checked in with yourself, considering what it is that you want to be focusing on right now? What is important to you? Reconnecting with whatever awaits you in the activities of the day….