Mindfulness for sceptics


I didn’t start off as a sceptic. I used to be first in the queue for anything that promised to change my life, and there have been a lot of books making a lot of promises. There was the 365 day stress-less challenge*, the 52 weeks of positive affirmations*, the 10 steps to instant confidence*, you name it, I’ve tried it. And when they didn’t work, I’d feel even more of a failure, and then buy the next book with a cover full of promises…

A decade later and a lot more anxious (but with a bulging bookcase) I have become a bit sceptical of the latest craze. I see a book with a title like “Think happy, be happy”* and yes, I pick it up (or click on it), I look at the reviews on Amazon, and I put it back down again. I figure that I won’t be happier, just £7.99 worse off, which just rubs salt in the wound. If it was that easy, I’d have succeeded years ago, wouldn’t I?

And then a friend sent me an email about how mindfulness had worked for his anxiety, and posted me a copy of this book, “The art of happiness” by Matthieu Ricard.

I had heard of mindfulness, a friend’s counsellor had recommended it to help with depression. She described it as noticing the little things that we usually walk straight past, and so I had tried this on my daily trudge to work. I noticed a Siamese cat watching me from an upstairs window, flowers growing in the gaps between concrete slabs, the way the sun caught the chimney posts in the morning. It gave me a little lift, but like most things, it wore off. Or, more accurately, I forgot to keep doing it, and so it wore off. (Now I realise that observing our surroundings is just a small part of mindfulness).

I couldn’t help but be intrigued by this book that arrived on my doorstep, by the fact that it was written by a Buddhist monk (which made his promises sound a lot more trustworthy than most) and by the heartfelt recommendation from a school friend I hadn’t seen in years. I’ll admit, I was too drained to read it there and then, but I looked up the author and found his TED talk, “The habits of happiness“, and I was captivated. I spent all afternoon watching talks, lectures and classes on mindfulness, wanting to know more. The video below stands out as a particular favourite from that afternoon because it explains mindfulness so well, both the practice of mindfulness and the science behind it (and the fact that the talk is given by the University of California helps me to believe that it isn’t another craze!). It is long, but it is well worth the watch:

And that was it, I was hooked, in no small part because of the scientific evidence that showed that mindfulness physically changes your brain. Carla Shatz coined the phrase “cells that fire together wire together” (Carla Shatz), or to give it its scientific name, synaptic plasticity. So here was medical proof that I could actually reprogramme my brain to be more positive. Wow. My inner sceptic was suddenly feeling a lot less sceptical. (NB the mindfulness that I practice has its roots based on Buddhist principles and meditations, but minus the religion. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a medical professor, fused Buddhist practices with Western psychology and brought us a non-religious version of mindfulness).

I wanted to get started as soon as possible, so I found a book that came with a CD: Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world. It’s written as an 8 week course, a course that I could do at home, at my own pace. I even checked out the author’s voice to make sure I found it relaxing. Perfect.

The first chapter was so well written that even in my frazzled state I quickly understood what Mindfulness is, what it isn’t, and why I should do it (the scientific evidence mentioned earlier).

Mindfulness doesn’t include:

  • Sitting cross legged (unless you want to)
  • Chanting (I’d be too self-conscious!)
  • Attending a class (unless you want to)
  • Trying to stop all the thoughts that pop into your head (impossible, surely?)
  • A large commitment of time (if you can fit in 3 minutes a day, you’ll be fine)
  • A large commitment of money (you can borrow a book from the library)

Mindfulness does include:

  • Learning to accept (not change) whatever emotions you are feeling
  • Appreciating what you already have
  • Noticing your thoughts, not trying to stop them or change them
  • Exercises that only take a few minutes
  • Exercises you can do almost anywhere (I do mine on the bus)
  • And yes, it really does re-wire your brain!

My next post will give an outline of the 8 week course, and what I gained from it. I warn you, I am bowled over by this book, it really has changed how I view things, or more accurately, how I think. And trust me, I overthink! (And no, I’m not on commission).

*The small print – titles marked with an asterisk are titles I have made up to illustrate a point. They are not a reflection on any real books that might have these names!


14 thoughts on “Mindfulness for sceptics

    1. It has helped me more than anything else I’ve tried, it really has been life changing. It teaches you not to battle against your thoughts / emotions, but instead to notice them and accept them. I have mastered noticing them, and realising they are only thoughts and not necessarily true, which has helped me to stop the spiral of reacting to thoughts and then going in to full on panic. I am still learning the acceptance bit, this is more difficult for me – I keep reverting to my default of battling them!

      I hope you try it, I can’t recommend the green book enough. Even more, I really hope it helps x

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  2. I can’t really remember when I first discovered mindfulness. I tried a meditation morning in March this year, and really enjoyed that.
    I’ve found it’s a discipline, and that I have to do it, even if I don’t think it will work. I keep having to remind myself to return to the moment. Practising has helped enormously with anxiety, and has prevented the downward spiral on many occasions. I read “the mindful way through depression” about a year ago, now re-reading and taking notes and doing the exercises. The CD that comes with it is done by Jon Kabat-Zinn and I find his voice really soothing.
    Look forward to reading how you get on with the book!

  3. I only discovered mindfulness this summer, but I think what swung it for me was the medical / scientific evidence. As I’ve begun to feel better I have slipped up now and then with the daily practice, but I do notice when I haven’t done it. The most amazing thing was when I had a panic attack and instead of it taking hours to get out of the physical and mental spiral that I’m used to, I spotted what was happening, did my breathing practice and came out if it in about 10 minutes – a first! I think it was because of the mindfulness practice that my new “autopilot” was to switch into mindfulness instead of despair. Now off to Amazon to look up your book, thank you ….

  4. My brother suggested I would possibly like this web site.
    He was once entirely right. This post actually made my day.
    You can not believe just how so much time I had spent
    for this info! Thanks!

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