By Jessica Warren
Mindfulness has become increasingly well-known within the last decade, with apps, YouTube channels, Ted talks, and books dedicated to the topic. Yet it seems that only those that actively seek out this technique are clued in, when really it can benefit us all.
Mindfulness is the conscious practise of bringing your attention to the experiences happening at the present moment, and whilst traditionally done through meditation, this is not the only way. Let’s take a morning walk to lectures as an example. Strolling down the path, you pay attention to the sound of the morning birds, or seagulls. You appreciate the sight of the clouds patterning the sky, or the way the rain is bouncing off pavements. The taste of the coffee you’ve just downed to keep you awake this morning still lingers in your mouth and you recognise the feel of your knitted gloves on your hands. These are ways that exploring the five senses can help ground you in the present moment.
Mindfulness originally comes from Buddhist practices, and has most prominence in Asia. However, within recent years, the core practises have been adapted to suit a western lifestyle, mostly with the aim of helping ease the symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress. It is thought that Mindfulness can improve our mental wellbeing by allowing us to understand ourselves better, recognise when we are experiencing negative thoughts, and disrupting the day to day ‘autopilot’ we act out.
A positive aspect to the approach is that it can be practised anywhere, from sitting on a train, to your daily tasks, or a walk to lectures as previously mentioned. Apps such as buddhify market themselves as ‘modern mindfulness for busy lives’, aiming to integrate mindful practises into our everyday actions. I have known many students advocate for apps like these, as simple reminders to acknowledge the present moment can help to disrupt and notice negative thinking patterns.
Yet there are also more formal practises associated with this technique. Mindfulness meditation is a process of sitting silently, in order to pay attention to the thoughts, sounds, and sensations of breathing within the body. And no, you don’t have to be sat with your legs crossed chanting ‘om’ for this to work. Although related to Buddhism, a mantra is not essential, and the recognition of the body, and breathing, can also be achieved through yoga and tai-chi.
This is supported by ongoing research into the benefits of mindful practises, with Professor Mark Williams, former director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre advocating the practice. He says “It’s also easy to lose touch with the way our bodies are feeling and to end up living ‘in our heads’ – caught up in our thoughts without stopping to notice how those thoughts are driving our emotions and behaviour”. By exploring this, if only for a matter of minutes across the day, we are able to step out from the daily monotony many of us experience. Being caught up by deadlines, readings, and lectures, as well as juggling sports, societies, and socializing- it is important to take a minute for yourself amid our chaotic daily lives.
In order to better understand the techniques of mindfulness, I have been engaging with the practice myself, alongside the guidance of my wellbeing counsellor. Taking the time to recognise thoughts of stress, anxiety, and depression have helped me to appreciate things I would otherwise take for granted, and explore thoughts that aren’t always helpful.
Perhaps there is room for mindfulness practices to be taught in greater detail to students, as this relatively low-maintenance method can be easily employed throughout the day, with a bit of conscious thought. With student mental health being a topic of concern for many, being mindful of our stressors, and how we react to them can only be beneficial.
As this is a relatively new concept within the western world, there is still research being conducted into the benefits of mindfulness practises, and who it can most benefit. Crucially, Professor Williams states that “it’s important that our enthusiasm doesn’t run ahead of the evidence,” as some mental illnesses will require a range of therapies. Yet the positive aspects to this practices should not be overlooked. Arguably, we should all take a little time to be mindful during the day, there’s no harm in trying.