By Cynthia Spillman.
We live in a time when mindfulness has strongly come into vogue. I believe this to be a very good thing, as being more mindful, can only be an enriching experience, benefitting everybody we come into contact with. Above all, when practised regularly, mindfulness improves the most important relationship you’ll ever have – with yourself.
Mindfulness is about being in the present moment – the only moment we ever have – and savoring it. It’s the opposite of rumination, in which we drive ourselves crazy, with the same old draining thoughts going round and round in our heads like a washing machine on its spin cycle.
Many years ago, I developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, as the result of a catastrophic car accident in which my son died. My nerves were totally shot. Panic attacks besieged me multiple times every day. I suffered from extreme phobias, and acute depression. My world shrank dramatically. I tried to meditate but found it to be absolutely impossible to do so. Sitting still for any length of time felt physically painful. In the end, I became seriously addicted to prescription medication, and then to alcohol, in a futile attempt to quieten my inner torment. Today I don’t feel ashamed about that, as I needed every crutch I could grab hold of, in order to survive, nurse my seriously injured daughter, study for a law degree at Cambridge University, get divorced twice, pay off huge debt which I hadn’t actually incurred, and just generally keep a very shaky body and soul together.
Just 2 years ago, as the result of more emotional challenges, experienced in an otherwise extremely happy life, I happened upon mindfulness, whilst sitting in a motel room in San Francisco. It was one of those moments of clarity, where your perspective is suddenly transformed, in what feels like a nanosecond. I’d long since dealt with my addiction demons by then, but beginning to practise mindfulness has transported me to a whole new level of contentment – most of the time!
Related: Mindfulness Meditation 101
After reading about mindfulness and hearing Professor Mark Williams, of Oxford University speak about it, I embarked on an 8 week course, once a week for 2 hours, in mindfulness-based stress reduction. This then led to my husband Peter also doing the same course. And now, 2 years later, I’ve started a part-time Masters’ degree in mindfulness-based approaches at Bangor University.
Stop, look and listen
One of the biggest benefits for me of practising mindfulness, has been the shattering of my lifelong castration around creativity, imposed on me by my late father. I was imbued with the notion that anything creative, was of absolutely no value, so why bother with it? Since beginning to meditate – this time round, and sticking to the discipline, albeit imperfectly – I found a publisher for my book on mindfulness and dating: and it came out last autumn. As a result of this, I’m travelling to Hollywood this week, where I’m going to be interviewed on radio about it, by the US’ foremost relationship expert, Dr Wendy Walsh. Mighty oaks from little acorns grow.
Mindfulness enables you to stop, mind the gap and reflect. It literally gives you a breathing space from where you can cool your hot reactions, choosing to make a wiser response than you may have done, pre-meditation. You stop being driven by your faulty inner tapes, and you learn to disidentify from them. Practising the pause is liberating. You learn to respond rather than to react.
It also teaches you how to develop self-compassionate – something we, as women, can find incredibly hard to practise with ourselves. We’re so used to putting others’ needs first, we can end up running on empty. Whilst we can probably never completely eradicate our harsh inner critic, we become much more aware of its presence and impact, and we can learn to relate to ourselves in a more nurturing way.
Mindfulness improves your physical, as well as mental health. There’s a weighty body of research – no pun intended – proving just this. Meditation permits you to enter into a different relationship with your pain, so that instead of fighting it – and we all know that what we resist persists, we begin to breathe into the pain, and accept it – even though we might want to be rid of it! When we become stressed, we flood our body with the unpleasant fight or flight hormone, cortisol, which I refer to as “taking a cortisol shower”. Anybody who’s ever woken up with a jolt, in the wee small hours and started ruminating about a stressful situation, knows exactly what that hideous internal cortisol juddering feeling is like.
Communication improves vastly, with not just ourselves, but also within our significant relationships. In the area of couple communication, it’s so easy to hear what’s being said through our erroneous filters, and then to overreact to it – strongly. More often than not, this is down to not only poor communication – but also our deeply personal, historical “stuff”. This is where practising communication mindfulness can be extremely helpful. When you put this into operation, you become increasingly able to pause, “mind the gap”, and clarify what’s actually being said, as opposed to what you think is being said. When you do this, you’re far less likely to get your relationship knickers into a twist.
There’s a Zen saying that states, “you should sit in meditation for twenty minutes every day — unless you’re too busy. Then you should sit for an hour.” Mindfulness isn’t fancy, nor does it demand the use of incense, a clunky mantra or that you sit for hours on a meditation stool and develop “numb bum”. The beauty of it that it’s simple. You use your breath as an anchor to the present moment. You don’t have to even do it for very long – you just have to do it! Peter and I meditate together every morning at 7.15 am. Believe me – we’re both incredibly busy people. However, we find that our short joint ritual pays relationship dividends.
There are plenty of good mindfulness courses available, but I strongly recommend that you do some elementary research, and sign up for a reputable face to face one. You can’t “get” it from just reading a book on the subject and I also believe it’s infinitely better to make the commitment to physically attend a reputable course on mindfulness training, over an eight week period. You then have not only the expert trainer in front of you, but a supportive peer group who are also on the same journey as you. You’re also far likelier to stick to a committed mindfulness practice, if you feel “accountable” to the rest of the group!
It works – if you work it
Mindfulness isn’t a fad. It’s here to stay. It’s scientifically proven to work, so do yourself a huge favour and search for a course today. There’s no wrong way to do it – other than not to do it at all. You don’t have to morph into either Mother Teresa, nor a latter day version of the Buddha. There are no hopeless cases. Keep it simple and remember – if you can breathe, then you can meditate!