- THE AUSTRALIAN
I’m on a stage, with my legs folded and my eyes closed in front of 300,000 people. I’m in India, filming a documentary on my teacher Sri Ravi Shankar and his involvement in recent elections. Suddenly he instructs the assembled media to down cameras and orders 15 minutes of mindful meditation for everyone. People in the audience who’ve been screaming wildly and singing in a frenzy go silent. A pin could be heard dropping a mile away.
Filled with adrenalin, my mind is screaming: “No, no, I want to get up and film this incredible moment!” But I hear my teacher’s soothing voice guiding us: think about our bodies, our feelings, the taste in our mouths, the cool night air on our noses, every sound, every shuffle, every feeling. We are floating in timeless space and yet totally present to everything.
That evening, in a calm and relaxed state, I film better than I ever have before.
Welcome to the world of mindfulness. It’s the buzzword in the corporate world; it’s the buzzword in the psychological community. Therapists are retraining to be able to use it, neuroscientists swear by it. There are conferences all over the world promoting it. In Australia, the Dalai Lama attended the recent annual Happiness & Its Causes conference. And in October Sydney hosts the Mind & Its Potential conference.
Companies such as Sony, Google, the World Bank, General Electric, Goldman Sachs, IBM, L’Oreal, and locally Telstra and SBS have done corporate-based mindfulness training programs along with 200 organisations worldwide. They lead to a 20 per cent to 35 per cent increase in productivity, equivalent to 2.5 extra days a month, according to trainer Rasmus Hougaard, founder of the Potential Project.
A friend says it saved her marriage, and she has gone on to become a mindfulness teacher.
So what is mindfulness, how do you practise it, and what are the effects? Why is it being hailed as the cure-all that can help us avoid cancer and heart disease, ward off dementia, lift libido, prevent ageing and make for happier relationships?
For me, it has changed my life and given me a sense of gratitude and calm. But to simplify the experience I had on stage: mindfulness is a state of dual consciousness, where you are both the player and the observer watching yourself from the stadium at the same time.
Psychology Today describes it as a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, without judging thoughts as good or bad.
After enough eye-closed practice it’s about taking a meditative state into day-to-day life: eyes wide open, literally. Walking, working, eating with acute, heightened awareness. An altered state where you are aware of everything but fazed by nothing.
You learn to control your mind and make considered choices. In an instant you can stop fighting and see the other person’s point of view, simultaneously noticing the exquisite colour of the sky and the warm tingling in your hands.
It’s origins are in Buddhism, Taoist and yogic practices, with the father being the Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh. But it has been refined for secular audiences in a way that strips away all religious connotations, yet holds the wisdom of thousands of years.
Not everyone is a fan. “Beware the hype,” The Guardian warns, with some critics saying mindfulness is just a fad. But it is absolutely not New Age mumbo jumbo.
The neurological basis is this: we can learn techniques to consciously switch off the sympathetic nervous system — the excitory system that drives us — and switch on the parasympathetic system, which soothes us, fills us with feel-good hormones and keeps us sharp, focused, energetic and happy.
An average person spends their whole day in sympathetic mode, with cortisol, adrenalin and norephedrine (the hormones of fight or flight) pumping through our bodies the minute we wake up — getting kids ready for school, getting to work. Our heart rate increases and breathing turns shallow as the school sandwiches drop on the floor and the dog escapes. Those of us who hit the emails and newspaper with our coffee become overstimulated before we even tackle traffic, let alone the pressures of love, kids, parents and work through the day.
As Ruby Wax, comedian turned Oxford graduate in mindfulness (author of the bestseller Sane New World) told me during her recent Australian visit, we live in a state of threat or panic. When we see a dinosaur, it’s relevant, as it is when we have a momentary need to meet a deadline. But most of us run on adrenalin all the time, and it’s driving us nuts.
Scientists agree long-term stress is corrosive and carcinogenic in daily life and leads to poor health and poor performance, like revving a car in a garage until the fumes overwhelm you.
Mindfulness is a circuit breaker that turns on the parasympathetic nervous system. The moment you become mindful of how you are being, you can go into a meditative state, do the breathing and mind techniques, and “switch”. Psychology Today explains going into the mindful state allows the vagus nerve responsible for our heartbeat to calm us down and turn on anti-stress enzymes and hormones (such as prolactin, vasopressin, oxytocin, serotonin).
It’s all in the mind. Or as the Buddhists call it, “the monkey mind”, because it’s almost impossible to control our wayward thoughts. Reining in my mind is like herding cats. We have 60,000 to 80,000 thoughts a day and most are repetitive thoughts we had yesterday. A study by Harvard researcher Matt Killingsworth found our minds wander 46.9 per cent of the time.
Corporate trainer Hougaard says when we find a way to focus — not distracting ourselves with emails, multi-tasking or mindless thoughts — we come alive. Adrenalin is not needed for success.
Global law firm Herbert Smith Freehills, one of Hougaard’s clients, says its mindfulness program has increased effectiveness by 35 per cent and focus by 45 per cent. One partner says mindfulness practice is now “more critical” than exercise.
There are two main schools: mindfulness-based stress relaxation, founded by the man credited with bringing the practice to the west, Jon Kabat-Zinn; and its derivative, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy.
We are so lost in yesterday, tomorrow, plotting and planning, we miss the beauty of life, says British clinical psychologist Paul Gilbert, founder of compassion focused therapy.
Speaking at the recent Happiness & Its Causes conference, he said the mind will grow whatever we plant in it. Therefore it’s important to be mindful of the inner bully who blames or shames us, and learn to switch our attention to helpful thoughts.
Scientists measuring monks’ brains have proved we create new neural pathways when we drop into a meditative state, so mindful changes are permanent.
We train our muscles to lift weights. Mindfulness is training the brain to lift the worries of the world off our shoulders.
So you’re a “normal sane man” Bernard..?
You may, (unfortunately in the world as it currently is ) be “normal”., but you are certainly not sane.