The Wonders of Mindfulness, London Guide
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a way of waking up from the habitual thoughts and feelings and that go round and round in your head. These ruminations are so familiar to you, it’s easy to mistake the crowded space you call reality as normal. And when it’s all you’ve ever known, why should you think anything else?
The problem with these habitual thoughts, is they can take on a life of their own, and easily morph into negative downward spirals.
Let’s assume we all have what British psychologist John Bowlby described as an ‘internal working model’. An unconscious terrain, a map of how our thoughts and feelings progress. The model’s influenced by how you grew up, and the experiences you’ve had over the years.
This landscape becomes more pronounced over time. Thousands of times, every day you head down that well-trodden path, even if it’s not the most efficient or prettiest route.
The mind loves habits, and will happily stick to them, through rain or shine. But it won’t feel like an obvious problem, because all of this happens under the level of your conscious awareness.
That is until you try meditating
Close your eyes, and you’re suddenly confronted with an overwhelming cacophony of thoughts and sensations. Instead of a peaceful lake, it’s like jumping into a chaotic river. Instead of witnessing your thoughts, you’re swept away by them, helpless as you’re tossed from one thought to the next.
You’ve opened the door to your house only to find you can hardly even see what’s there, behind the mess. There might be feelings too, and memories, locked away from long ago.
It might even be unbearable, with every cell of your body screaming at you to close the door.
This is where most people give up. “Meditation isn’t for me, I tried it. Running is my meditation” Or cooking, or music.
But this is a crucial stage.
If instead of running, you take some courage, you might just be able to commit to opening that door for a minute every day. It takes time, but it gets easier and easier.
Perhaps the biggest lesson in learning mindfulness, is kindness to yourself. Giving yourself all the patience you need to allow your mind to wonder again and again, day after day.
Gently letting it go, and carrying on.
What is mindful meditation?
Mindful meditation is taking the time to ‘remember’ there’s a place you can be, where you’re conscious of your thoughts, feelings and physical sensations.
Traditionally you’d practice mindful meditation sitting on a cushion, with your eyes closed. It takes some of the distractions away, so you can concentrate on the contents of your mind.
But you don’t have to assume any physical posture, or be in a specially conducive environment. You could be anywhere in London, waiting for a bus at Bond Street, or relaxing in Regents Park. It’s ultimately about coming back to the present, so you can do it anywhere, in whatever situation you find yourself
Just become aware of your breathing.
If it’s fast, it’s fast, if it’s shallow, it’s shallow. Pay attention to the present moment without judgement, without changing anything. It takes time to learn how to observe without interfering, but when it starts happening, transformation begins.
With time, you start becoming aware of your own internal structure, as you watch one thought leading to another, to another, to another. And you don’t have to change anything either. Don’t get me wrong, you’ll want to change things, but you’ll eventually learn to just let them be.
The more you observe, the more space starts showing up between each thought. The mental chains become looser, and what were once habitual reactions, become calm, considered responses.
As you develop sensitivity to your internal environment, a mindful way of live becomes a habit. Thoughts and feelings take on less weight and importance, as you become more curious about the space around the thoughts.
It’s from this space you can experience true calmness. More relaxation, less reaction and more patience.
What are the benefits of Mindfulness?
Instead of trying to change or modify your feelings, you’ll notice moods as they arise, as they’re present, and as they pass. As you become a witness to your feelings, you’ll get less caught up with them. You’ll see worries about the future, or mistakes you’ve made in the past as habitual machinations of the mind.
If you practice mindfulness regularly, it’s likely to change your long term level of well being and satisfaction. There’s scientific studies that show how mindfulness is effective in preventing depression, and relieving stress and anxiety.
What’s the history of Mindfulness?
Mindfulness originates from the Buddhist spiritual tradition, where it’s traditionally called shamatha meditation.
Mindfulness in the West is largely attributed to Jon Kabat-Zinn, who developed a program in the 1970s (MBSR, mindfulness based stress reduction). It was designed for medical patients in chronic pain.
The program taught participants that much of their suffering was caused by trying to avoid the pain, rather than the pain itself.
The most popular program today is the MBCT (Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy) program. It’s an 8 week course available in many places across London. MBCT is held in small groups, where the participants are shown how to increase awareness in and between the sessions.
Mindfulness is also a central concept in other therapies, such as Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT), and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). And there’s also more traditional ways of learning mindfulness, in spiritual centres and residential retreats.
Mindfulness and Psychotherapy
Mindfulness practice is a natural compliment to any therapy, as it increases awareness of how you’re thinking or feeling in the moment. There’s many studies showing the benefits of mindfulness in the areas of depression and anxiety, pain management and relationships.
There’s also evidence on how mindfulness helps with problem solving and creativity. When you learn to distinguish your thoughts from the space they arise from, you’ll gain access to a new vibrant space, from which flexibility, spontaneous play, and optimism blossom in all areas of your life.
Mindfulness in London – Resources
A centre offering 8 week courses and meditation lessons in Fitzroy Square W1, central London
North London Buddhist Centre
A friendly centre in Holloway, London N7 offering classes and courses for beginners
A Buddhist run centre for mindfulness in Bethnal Green, London E2
A yoga studio offering meditation and mindfulness classes in Camden, Chelsea, Ealing and Shoreditch
A charity offering mindfulness training, a free online course and mindfulness teacher training