Occasional daydreams can be an enjoyable escape but it’s distracting when you’re regularly lost in thought. Caitlyn Davey learns how to focus and live in the moment.
Practising mindfulness is a psychological method to prevent thoughts from swinging from one memory or reflection to another, as they do in a daydream. It’s a skill that is beneficial for therapeutic reasons, particularly if you’ve recently experienced a major loss or are going through a tough time and one that can be developed through meditation.
A psychologist at the American Center for Psychiatry and Neurology, Dr Susan Partridge, explains ‘Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges when we pay attention to our experiences in the present moment, with a spirit of acceptance of whatever arises.’
The practice originated from cognitive behavioural therapy, a talking therapy that teaches patients techniques to change negative thoughts and behaviour. It’s used to assist patients suffering from depression, anxiety and other mood disorders. Susan says, ‘Research has shown mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, or MBCT, helps people with chronic depression. The parent of MBCT is mindfulness-based stress reduction, or MBSR, which was developed by Kabat-Zinn in the early ’90s in the USA. This in turn drew from the long legacy of mindfulness teaching in Buddhism. The practice of mindfulness is initially encouraged through sitting meditation, infused with a sense of acceptance, gentleness and curiosity.’
But maintaining a presence in a room is easier said than done. Yet while it’s a skill that is challenging to master, it is possible, says Susan. ‘It takes commitment and practise to change old ways of thinking. The first step is to become aware of what your mind is doing – some people find keeping a written record of their thoughts helpful for this. Once you have started becoming more aware of when you are engaging in unhelpful thinking, take a couple of deep breaths and focus on what you are experiencing in the here and now – then focus on what you are going to do next, and do it.’
Alok Puri teaches a meditation and lifestyle course called The Art of Living at different venues around the UAE. He says people struggle to keep their mind in a room for various reasons. ‘This is because the mind is like a kite, flying all over the place. The mind broods over past events or worries about the future. It is rarely in the present moment.’
Susan says, ‘Mindfulness can help us to fully experience what is happening from moment to moment, rather than living continually in the past or present. It helps people to step back from their thought processes and to abandon a ruminative thinking style, which is self-focused, repetitive, negative and unhelpful. However, many mindfulness practitioners would smile at any attempt to deconstruct it in this way; trying to articulate a mindfulness theory has been described as trying to pin jelly on a wall.’
The therapy-based component of the practice is beneficial when performed correctly. Susan says, ‘It has been described as a powerful way of re-establishing and strengthening connectedness with our own inner landscape. It has been shown to be useful for people who suffer from stress and chronic depression and pain. One of its unique aspects is that anyone delivering mindfulness-based therapy should actively practise mindfulness-based meditation in their own lives; practitioners need to make a considerable commitment to it. It has therefore been seen sometimes as more of a way of life than as a form of psychotherapy.’
Alok says yoga and regular meditation can help hone the skills to maintain the mind’s presence. ‘Regular yoga, breathing exercises and meditation are very effective in arresting the tendencies of the mind to venture. One has to realise that the first step is to become aware of the tendencies and then do these practices that increase the energy in our system. The increase in energy helps us to become more mindful of our inner world, or emotions. It is easy but needs discipline and commitment.’
Swinging thoughts can be problematic not only during meditation, but during other forms of relaxation. Alok says, ‘It is important for the mind to be in the present moment. We must not get carried away by our emotions. Generally, we become our emotions, if we get feelings of anger, we get angry, if we get feelings of sadness, we become sad and so on. With regular meditation, we can watch our emotions like you might watch clouds or a flowing river – you are a spectator but not a participant, that way you become calmer. But this happens with regular practise of breathing exercises and meditation.’
Alok continues, ‘We need to commit to our happiness by becoming more mindful. This requires us to learn techniques and practise them regularly – a small price to pay compared to the benefits which we get from these practices. If we give quality time and effort to our mental health, the results are amazing and affect all aspects of our life.’
American Center for Neurology and Psychiatry, corner of 11th and 26th Streets, Abu Dhabi (02 697 9999) www.theartofliving.org (02 671 7549).