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Live in the Here and Now


Live in the Here and Now

Mindfulness: it's about focusing on the present, not worrying about yesterday or tomorrow - and it's increasingly being used as treatment and therapy too.

A CARTOON shows two Buddhist monks sitting side by side. They're deep in meditation when the younger one opens an eye and gives the older, wiser one a questioning look.

"Nothing happens next. This is it," the older one responds.

The scenario perfectly sums up the increasingly popular practice of mindfulness - a way of living by consciously paying attention to present moment and not worrying about yesterday or tomorrow.

The practice, familiar to some who have encountered it in self-help books for instance is growing in popularity around the world. Businesses and hospitals use it; psychologists use it to treat patients and universities are beginning to take it seriously.

The University of Cape Town's (UCT) Graduate School of Business was one of the first business schools in the world to introduce it as part of one of its programmes. And research at UCT's Sports Science institute has shown it improves sports-people's cognitive functioning and concentration.

In SA there are mindfulness classes to ease the anxiety of pregnant women; clinical psychology incorporates it in cognitive behavioural therapy and it's used for medical conditions such as chronic pain, stress, anxiety and depression.

A recent Canadian study shows being mindful might be as effective as taking medication to prevent the relapse of depression. Mindfulness programmes are used at American universities, counselling centres, schools and the in the US military.

What is mindfulness? Those who practice it say they achieve a happier, more content life and have stronger self-esteem. It also helps you be more accepting of yourself and others and lessens worry, stress and anxiety.

And it seems we need it because people's average anxiety level today is equivalent to what was regarded as an illness 50 years ago, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Oxford Mark Williams says.

A recent Harvard University study shows it might have to do with the fact most people's minds are not fully engaged in what they do at any given moment. People are most unhappy when their minds wander.

In African and Eastern cultures the expression "thinking too much" commonly refers to being unnecessarily anxious about the past or future. People in those cultures have long been aware of what the Western world is only now realising.

MINDFULNESS is simply about noticing life rather than being on autopilot, says UK think tank The New Economics Foundation.

We tend to eat meals without tasting the food, read without absorbing, have conversations without really listening and walk without looking at our surroundings. When we're at work, we fantasise about being on holiday; on vacation, we worry about the work we're going to come back to.

People are constantly plagued with not only outside stress but internal stress, with thoughts such as "I'm no good" or "I'm going to lose my job" or "nothing will ever work out for me".

'Focusing on the present forces you to stop over-thinking'

Focusing on the present forces you to stop overthinking. "Being present-minded takes away some of that self-evaluation and getting lost in your mind - and the mind is where we make the evaluations that beat us up," says Stephen Schueller, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania in the US.

When you become mindful you realise you're not your thoughts; you become an observer of your thoughts. That way they don't control you.

Imagine your thoughts as a river you're immersed in - the thoughts are the water that will come and go, Simon Whitesman, chairman of the Institute for Mindfulness South Africa, says. "If you are sad be curious about it without judging yourself about your sadness." Curiosity replaces being judgmental of yourself and others in mindfulness.

"When we constantly over-think and judge our actions and thoughts and those of others, which we can't control anyway, our lives go from the full Technicolor of a curious child to grey, to dark grey and then to black."

An internet search will direct you to mindfulness practitioners in South Africa,


How to Become Mindful

Anything you focus on completely can be meditative such as doing the dishes, walking, taking a bath or shower or being engrossed in a hobby or sport.

It's all about how fully you're anchored in the enjoyment of that moment that adds to your happiness. Use these tips to become more mindful in your daily life:

  • "Mindfulness, like any skill, is cultivated and won't happen overnight but here is an example of what you could try," suggests Simon Whitesman of the Institute for Mindfulness South Africa suggests:

1    Let's say you're anxious about a presentation you're giving in a day's time. Acknowledge the feeling; don't try to suppress it.

2    Ask yourself what is generating the feeling. After all, the meeting is a full day away.

3    Anchor yourself in the present by becoming aware of your breathing. This will give you a foothold in the present. Become more aware of your surroundings - what you're eating, hearing, seeing, tasting and smelling right now. These are little doorways into your present. The more you practise the better it will get. Don't wait until a crisis to put mindfulness to use. Do it every day in ordinary situations and even when the thought your mind is straying toward isn't necessarily stressful.

  • Meditate. Take note of your breath as you inhale and exhale, noticing your thoughts and feelings. If your mind wanders to past and future worries or anything negative gently bring it back. Try this for just five minutes a day, even in the shower. Smell the soap and take note of how the water feels on your skin instead of thinking about what to prepare for sup­per or your child's unfinished homework - deal with those things when they happen.
  • Love yourself unconditionally. Negative thoughts about how you hate your body can sabotage your weight-loss efforts. Instead of setting a weight-loss goal and promising to love yourself once you get there you need to make an effort to love yourself in all the moments, all the way, Jon Kabat-Zinn, practitioner of mindfulness-based stress-reduction therapy, says.
  • Motivate yourself. Don't bother with thoughts about all the junk you ate yesterday or that you didn't go to the gym. Do something about it now.
  • Don't take hard knocks personally. It's vital to look at the present if you're in a difficult position such as losing your job or a divorce. What are you going to do that's different at this moment to move forward?
  • Do nothing. Dedicate a few minutes a day or at weekends to ignoring work, SMSes, e-mails, the computer, TV and even household chores. Go outside and look at the clouds or stars; smell the coffee you're drinking and feel the sand under your feet.
  • Get involved. One of the best ways of living in the moment is the state of total absorption psychologists call flow. This is when you're so engrossed in a task you lose track of everything else around you. It could be a hobby, sport or a good book.
  • Attack problems. If something bothers you tackle it head-on as soon as possible. It may be an ex you still care about or your noisy neighbours. Some situations can't be avoided and resisting them only magnifies the pain.

YOU MAGAZINE December 2010

Practicing mindfulness has been discovery of an inner security blanket - only sometimes accessible but always there... a consequence of stopping, experiencing the prickle of adrenalin, choosing a different response. Life is richer, not easier.
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