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138. The Case for Being Present

Some people rave about it, some people scoff at it - what is the truth about mindfulness and presence? There is often a trajectory when something new comes into fashion - I remember it with midi skirts in the seventies. For years we had all worn mini skirts and then, one day, I saw a girl I knew walking down the high street in a calf length skirt. If she had waltzed down the street naked it couldn't have had more of an impact. Heads turned, tongues wagged, but she walked calmly on, cool as you please. 'She was always a bit of a weird one,' said my mother, and I happily accepted her explanation for my discomfort. Of course, after a few months everyone was wearing them and they no longer seemed weird. Then, at some point, people decided that midi skirts weren't so nice after all, and another fashion came in. It has been a little like that with mindfulness. In the beginning there were the weird hippy types who practised it and nobody was too bothered because it had nothing to do with them. Then it became more mainstream and people started to take more notice. Whereas only a couple of years ago, if you Googled mindfulness courses, you'd be lucky to find any courses near you. Search now and dozens come up - local courses, local meditation groups, apps, online courses. Members of Parliament are talking about it. There are slots on the BBC about it. There is a whole chapter on it in the department of education's guidance for improving emotional health in schools. Things have really changed. And now the next stage has been entered. People have started to scoff at it as 'just another one of those panaceas'. Others say that it is religion in disguise, 'Buddhism lite', or even a cult. Others that it is dangerous in that people may get in contact with feelings they can't deal with. Others say that it is self-focussed and so essentially selfish. There are good reasons for all this. Mindfulness is difficult. Get onto any train and you will see pretty well everyone plugged into some sort of gismo. We are busy all the time. Even when we stop we watch television or surf the internet. The concept of sitting quietly with just our breathing for entertainment is, well, unappealing. And a challenge, because it means that there may be something wrong with the way we normally do things. Far better to disparage it and save ourselves the trouble. 'In the past year or so it's gone from being an eccentric but harmless hobby practised by contemporary hippies to a new and wildly popular pseudo-religion' Melanie McDonagh, The Spectator A new client came to see me last week. She had almost maximum scores for anxiety. Her job was overwhelming her. She had to make a decision about her house. Her father was ill. Her husband's mother was ill. Her daughter treated her like dirt. She talked quickly, skipping from one stress-related subject to another, hands wringing, tears often welling up. I suggested that we might take a few minutes to relax. She looked at me sceptically. I know what you think, she said, you think I need to be mindful. But the thing is, that is not going to work. I have all these problems, mindfulness is not going to make them go away, is it? When you're frantic with stress and worry, the very last thing you want to do is sit quietly in the present. On the contrary, you want to get moving to solve all your problems as quickly as possible so that you can feel better in the future. And you don't want to accept reality either, another trying tenet of mindfulness, you want to change it. How is accepting reality going to solve the Syrian war? How will it save the planet? How will it help my overdraft? To stop and sit quietly in the face of very real problems requires an act of faith, which is perhaps why some people think it's a religion. You have to be prepared to try it and see, because only the experience will convince you. Well maybe not only the experience, maybe some science will help. In his Ted talk, 'Being brilliant every day', Neuroscientist Alan Watkins, shows how mindful breathing can change your physiology, and so change how you feel. In the cognitive behavioural world the way to change feelings is to change thoughts and behaviours, but here we find a different approach - to change feelings you only have to change your physiology. If you breath mindfully, rhythmically and evenly for just a few minutes, your heart rate and respiratory rate slows, and you feel calmer. Nothing has changed in your outside world, your problems are still there, the Syrian war keeps raging, time keeps passing, but you feel different. And an interesting thing happens when you feel calm - the cognitive part of your brain starts to work. We have all experienced our minds going blank when we're stressed and anxious and that is because the cognitive part of our brain stops working when we're stressed. That means we are unusually poor at handling our problems when we're stressed. I was at a mindfulness conference a couple of weeks ago, talking to one of the organisers during the lunch break. The person who was doing an excellent job of chairing the conference came up. 'Where is the gluten-free food?' she said. 'I have looked and looked and I can't find it. If I don't find it soon you're going to have a hungry chairwoman on your hands.' The way she said it suggested that he would not enjoy that. There is something about the great and the good that scares us. We instinctively recognise the hierarchy, and so do they. I suspect most people in the position the organiser found himself in at that moment would have got into quite a tizzy and rushed off to find the gluten free food themselves. This person must be placated, and now! Their heart would have raced, they would have gone a bit red in the face and they would have found themselves feeling very small indeed. Ah but you see, this man meditates every day. When you meditate every day you gradually gain access to a very grounded part of you that is not easily pushed off-centre by hungry and entitled academics. Or anyone else. He stood there quite calmly and directed her to the gluten free food. She went off and he turned to me. 'Mmm, I detected something of a change in tone there,' he said. And that was it. Try this:

  1. Think of a source of stress in your life and allow yourself to experience the feelings you have about it.

  2. Now bring your attention to your feet on the floor and slowly scan up your body, noticing each part.

  3. Then bring your attention to your breathing and notice the rise and fall of your body as you breathe in and out.

  4. Now take a breath in to the count of four, hold it for four, breathe out for four, and hold it for four. Start again. Do this for three or four minutes.

  5. Notice how you feel.

  6. Bring your mind back to the source of stress in your life. What has changed?

'In this moment, there is plenty of time. In this moment, you are precisely as you should be. In this moment, there is infinite possibility' Victoria Moran, author of Younger by the Day Have a calm and productive week! With love Anita