Mindfulness without meditation

The last post in my current series on mindfulness. The beginning of the series is here.


Let’s face it, not everyone wants to sit and meditate.

Formal sitting meditation is the best way to develop the skill of mindfulness, to stengthen your mindfulness muscle, but there are other ways to perform the meditation cycle. All you need is something to focus on that’s going on right now, and then off you go – focus, get distracted, notice, come back to focusing.

Every day I walk to the tube station (subway) 15 minutes from my house. On the way, I focus on the sensation of my feet alternately making contact with, and then pushing off from, the floor. I can manage about 100 yards before I get lost in a train of thought. But then I notice it’s happened, and I bring my attention back to my feet. I’m meditating by walking! And this means I can do two 15 minute meditations (there and back) every day. No more remembering another thing to fit into my busy morning schedule or worrying if I really have time to spend 15 minutes sitting doing nothing!

And it’s not just walking. If you think about it, there are so many opportunities every day – brushing your teeth, having a shower, washing dishes, preparing food, exercising in the gym. Once you’ve got the hang of it, you can even meditate while you’re driving on the motorway (though I wouldn’t recommend this for absolute novices!)

Even just short check-ins remind you to focus on the present – helping to give you Level 1 benefits. You can stick a sticker on your computer screen to remind you to check in when you see it. You simply spend 30-60 seconds tuning in to your body, your environment, the sights, sounds and smells. And for that short minute, you’re accessing the Level 1 benefits and interrupting whatever you happened to be ruminating on at the time. Sure, you’re not going to develop stable awareness if this is all you ever do (at least, if you do, it’s likely to take quite a long time!) but who doesn’t want an immediately available stress relief? A regular alarm on your phone is also a good reminder.

I’m a particular fan of the way Zen is built into Japanese culture so that it triggers you to be mindful, even without noticing. One example is in Zen pottery, where the master potters deliberately introduce imperfections into the glaze. They spend years mastering how to do this in a way that looks accidental. But the point is that instead of having a bowl in your hands that is perfect, and thereby likely to go unnoticed as ‘just a bowl’, you notice the imperfection, and in that moment you’re pulled away from whatever inner dialog is running through your head, and your attention is focused on the bowl. What it looks like, how the imperfection in the glaze feels under your fingers. You don’t realise, but you’ve just had a mindful moment.

There’s one last way that you can train your mindfulness without meditating. At some point as you practice meditation and approach the Level 2 benefits, the penny will drop and you’ll have an ‘a-ha!’ moment. Suddenly you realise what if feels like to be aware of your thoughts and see them as thoughts. You’ll get what I’m talking about when I talk about watching a movie with the lights on. And once you’ve had a taste of that experience, you can start playing a new game. The game of trying to hold that feeling for as long as possible, as often as possible during the day. And, though meditation is still the best way of strengthening the mental muscle, you can do a lot by repeatedley flexing it wherever you are and whatever you’re doing.

I was at an event the other evening launching the UK’s latest thinking on how to introduce mindfulness into workplaces, and during a Q&A session, someone in the audience made the point that the Sanskrit word that we translate into “mindfulness” is actually quite difficult to translate directly into English. But he prefered the translation “awareness”. I still like to think of it as having the lights on, but either way, that’s the real game. Meditation’s just one of the tools to get you there.

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There’s another level…

In this series of posts, I’m dispelling a couple of myths about what meditation is, and explaining how it strengthens your mind. I show why there are psychological and physical benefits to meditation, how those benefits change over time, and how you can learn to incorporate beneficial meditation into your life, even if you don’t have time to sit down and meditate at all.

Everything I talk about in these blogs comes from my own experience learning mindfulness, as well as research findings from the scientific literature and my time as Chief Medical Officer of the mindfulness app Headspace. I’m not religious, or a trained mindfulness trainer – I’m just fascinated by how this age-old tool works, and how much potential it has to help us.

You can find the first post in the series here


 

So you’ve been meditating for 10-20 minutes a few times a week, for a few weeks. You’re stunned at how much clarity you feel after you meditate, and how much calmer you feel in general. People are even commenting on how you seem to be a bit more chilled in the office. But, secretly, you realise it doesn’t feel like it’s working as well any more. The difference before and after a meditation isn’t as distinct as it was. And you feel like worries that used to plague you, but vapourised when you meditated, have started creeping back in, and you can’t seem to budge them. What’s happening?

Well, you’re acclimatising to the new feeling. It isn’t as novel anymore, and so it doesn’t register so strongly. Just the same way as half the way through the bag of crisps you don’t get the same flavour explosion as you did with the first crisp.

It’s easy to give up on meditation at this stage. Not as an active choice, but simply because life gets in the way. And without a really big palpable benefit from the exercise, other things compete for your precious time.

But it’s important to keep going. Not just because if you give up things will revert to how they were before, but because there’s another level of benefits! I call these Level 2 benefits, and I think they’re much more fundamental and important than the Level 1 benefits. It’s just that they don’t get talked about as much because far fewer people experience them. They take a lot more meditation practice to achieve, and they’re more subtle. But they really can transform your life and help you to be the best person you can be.

I’m talking about what psychologists call ‘metacognition’. Simply put, this means conscious awareness of your own thoughts. At first this might seem a little odd. How can you be having thoughts and not be aware that you’re having thoughts?? Well, it’s not that we’re unconscious, but rather that we’re so caught up in the content of the thoughts themselves that we don’t appreciate that they are just … thoughts.

One analogy for this that I talk about is watching a horror movie at home. Imagine you’re alone at home, watching a horror movie on the TV, with all the lights off. You’re totally into the movie, and it has you gripped. Nothing else exists for you except the movie, and as a result, your emotions are putty in the director’s hands.

Contrast this with watching the same movie, at home, alone, but with the living room lights on. It’s still the same movie. You’re still paying attention to it. But now you also have a continual awareness of the context in which the movie is occuring: the safety and comfortable surroundings of your living room. As a result, you’re a little less emotionally ruled by the movie. When a particularly scary scene happens, you can say to yourself “it’s ok, it’s just a movie. I’m safe at home in my living room.”

Well, the movie is like your train of thoughts. When you’re not aware of them as being thoughts, they own you, and your emotional reactions are correspondingly strong. But when you can see them for what they are – thoughts, passing through your head at this moment, with a beginning, a middle and an end – you maintain a bit more emotional balance. People sometimes call this being ‘centred’. It’s the opposite of cognitive fusion, and it’s therefore a much more psychologically healthy way to live your life. It also means you’re less likely to react emotionally to whatever is going on, and rather respond in a considered way that is more likely to achieve the outcome you want.

So how do we get to this wonderful state? Actually, it’s simply by clocking up the meditation minutes. Or, more specifically the reps round the meditation cycle. Remember that the cycle involves focusing on something. Then at some point you’ll get distracted and caught up in a train of thought. But then you notice that you’ve gotten distracted, and you return your attention to the original object of focus. Well, in order to notice that you’re distracted, you have to notice that you’re thinking about something other than the object of focus. And you can’t do that without noticing whatever it is that you’re actually thinking about. The more you do this, the more get to see where your thoughts keep going. You start to see patterns. When I’m in this mood, I tend to think about that. When this is going on in my life, my thoughts tend to be dominated by that. And by seeing that patterns in you thoughts, and what influences them, you also start to appreciate that they are simply thoughts. Right now you have this one, but in the same situation on a different day, perhaps when you’ve had a better night’s sleep, you might have a different thought.

And slowly but steadily, you start to get a sense of what it’s like to see your thoughts as thoughts, even while you’re having them. That’s metacognition. It’s the light in the living room slowly coming on while you’re watching the movie.

At first, the light’s only on for a short time, before you’re caught up in the day-to-day and swept away until a later time when you spontaneously notice that it had been off (and in that moment it turns on again.)  Over time, these moments when you notice your thoughts happen more frequently, and your awareness of your thoughts on each occasion lasts a little longer before you’re swept away again.

But you realise you’re on to something new. And then you start paying attention to how much you’re maintaining awareness of your thoughts, and you start to try and hold on to those periods of awareness for as long as possible.

The ideal would be to have total control over you awareness – to be able to maintain it for as long as you want to whenever you want to. (There are times when you might not want to be aware of your thoughts, such as when you’re in the cinema and you actually want to allow yourself to be swept away by the movie!) But the reality is that this takes a huge amount of practice. I’m nowhere near there yet, and I find my ability to maintain awareness changes from day to day. For instance the more tired I am, the harder it is to maintain awareness, and the more likely I am to be swept away by my thoughts and emotions.

But I can see why it’s a desirable place to reach. When you’re effortlessly and constantly aware, you can nip rumination in the bud, every time. You can see when your amygdala is being triggered, and defuse it before you descend into an emotionally-led state where you react automatically, rather than resonding in a considered manner.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve let my emotions get the better of me, and said or done something that immediately after I felt ashamed and foolish about having done. Wouldn’t it be nice for that to be a very rare exception? To be confident that, no matter what’s going on, you’re likely to always respond in the most helpful, constructive manner?

Awareness of our thoughts is a subtle, slow-to-develop, but incredibly powerful skill that can bring so much benefit to us as individuals, and to society as a whole. And the great thing is that it’s an inevitable by-product of doing reps round the meditation cycle.

In the next post, I’ll talk about some simple ways to build meditation into your life, without always having to take time out and sit down with your eyes closed, so that it’s easier to stay on the path to attaining the Level 2 benefits.

Ready Player One

In this series of posts, I’m dispelling a couple of myths about what meditation is, and explaining how it strengthens your mind. I show why there are psychological and physical benefits to meditation, how those benefits change over time, and how you can learn to incorporate beneficial meditation into your life, even if you don’t have time to sit down and meditate at all.

Everything I talk about in these blogs comes from my own experience learning mindfulness, as well as research findings from the scientific literature and my time as Chief Medical Officer of the mindfulness app Headspace. I’m not religious, or a trained mindfulness trainer – I’m just fascinated by how this age-old tool works, and how much potential it has to help us.

You can find the first post in the series here


 

One of the things you hear regularly about mindfulness is how quickly it works. There are even scientific studies showing various benefits after just one 20 minute meditation session. From one perspective, this is great news – you can do this simple practice for just a few minutes and experience benefits almost immediately.

But from another perspective, surely nothing that’s really good for you is so quick and easy?! I wouldn’t be surprised if many people think mindfulness is snake oil simply due to an understandable distrust for anything that seems like a silver bullet.

So, what’s going on here? Is there really any benefit to be had from just a small amount of mindfulness meditation? And why do people fervently announce that they feel a night-and-day difference after only a few sessions?

Well, I like to think of the benefits of meditation as having levels. Level 1 benefits are felt quickly and are quite noticeable. There are also Level 2 benefits, which I’ll talk about in the next post.

I’ve already talked about rumination, and how it has both a psychological and a physiological impact. So it makes sense that, simply by interrupting the continuous cycle of negative thoughts and bringing your attention to the present moment, you’re going to feel the benefit of no longer reliving whatever it is you’re ruminating about. For one simple moment, the noise in your head disappears, the anger or worry or sadness in your stomach dissipates, your brow relaxes. You feel better. (And your levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, decrease too.)

Also, not only are you not thinking about something distressing, the chances are that whatever you bring your attention back to in the present moment is actually quite pleasant. Remember how, as a child, everything was wondrous? But somewhere along the line it became, well, meh. Well, all that wondrous stuff is still wondrous. We’ve just acclimatised to it, and then stopped noticing it altogether. But if you take a moment to stop ruminating, and focus on something – even something you think you know really well – you can find details that delight.

Take that favourite scarf/pillowcase/towel/velvet jacket(!) of yours. Intellectually you know it’s soft to the touch. That’s one of the reasons it’s your favourite. But when was the last time you actually dedicated all of your attention to exactly how it feels under the skin of your fingertips? Or what about your favourite song? You play it regularly while you’re driving or catching up on emails on the subway into work, and sort of know that you like it, right? But when did you last really listen to it – the sound of the cymbals, the timbre of the singer’s voice, the insightfulness of the lyrics? And when was the last time you just stood and stared at that sunset/building/painting/object and really just take in how mesmerisingly beautiful the thing in front of your gaze is?

Interestingly, even when whatever’s going on in the present moment isn’t that pleasant, it turns out you’re still better off than if you allow yourself to continue ruminating. In a lovely simple experiment, Matt Killingsworth, a researcher at Harvard, found that even when people are sitting in traffic, they’re happier if they’re in the moment, than if they’re allowing their mind to wander (and therefore probably ruminate). Don’t believe me? Check out his TED talk

So when people who have recently started doing mindfulness enthusiasticly tell you how awsome it is, how much better they feel, it’s true! They’re suddenly feeling what it’s like to be able to interrupt their negative rumination. And because they’ve been letting their thoughts run away with them for so long, the difference when they start meditating feels huge.

And it doesn’t take a lot of meditation to start feeling the Level 1 benefits. In my experience, people who meditate for just 10 minutes a day, three or four times a week, will probably be feeling wonderful about it after as little as two weeks, which is a great motivator to continue!

Unfortunately, over time the Level 1 benefits start to feel a bit meh. Not because they’re getting any smaller, but just because they’re not so novel any more. And I think that’s often when novice meditators give up. Which is a shame, because if they stuck with it for a few months, they’d start to experience the Level 2 benefits, which is the topic of my next post…

I think, therefore I am…

In this series of posts, I’m dispelling a couple of myths about what meditation is, and explaining how it strengthens your mind. I show why there are psychological and physical benefits to meditation, how those benefits change over time, and how you can learn to incorporate beneficial meditation into your life, even if you don’t have time to sit down and meditate at all.

Everything I talk about in these blogs comes from my own experience learning mindfulness, as well as research findings from the scientific literature and my time as Chief Medical Officer of the mindfulness app Headspace. I’m not religious, or a trained mindfulness trainer – I’m just fascinated by how this age-old tool works, and how much potential it has to help us.

You can find the first post in the series here


 

In my last post I talked about rumination, and why it’s an understandable but nonetheless bad habit to get entrenched in. This post is about the second common unhelpful mode of thinking known to contribute to mental ill health: cognitive fusion.

Cognitive fusion means to be totally ‘fused’ with your thoughts – to take them as gospel, to believe and feel that they’re the absolute truth. We’ve all experienced this. A heated argument leads us to say something we regret, and then later on, when we’re ruminating on what happened, we think things like “I’m a horrible person”. And we feel awful.

Now, just take a step back and think rationally about that statement for a second. Are you really “a horrible person” because you said that thing? Or are you a perfectly decent person, trying to do their best in a difficult world, who occasionally says a regrettable horrible thing? I’m willing to bet you’re actually the second of those two options. But in the moment that you’re thinking “I’m a horrible person”, you believe it to be absolute and true. That’s cognitive fusion.

So why is cognitive fusion a bad thing? Well, for one thing it’s not very forgiving. And when you have a negative thought about yourself while you’re cognitively fused, it has a very strong impact. You believe it to be true, along with all the associated implications. Your self-worth, confidence and morale all suffer. Your brain goes into a state of defensiveness (activating the amygdala and inhibiting frontal cortex function), rather than one of problem-solving. Your mood falls.

And, annoyingly, our language primes us to do it. Consider the sentence: “I am sad”. Three words in which you have identified yourself, and fused your existence with a negative emotion. You have defined yourself through the emotion. Consider the alternative presented by the way grammar works in French: “I have sadness”. A very different situation. This implies a distinction between your and your emotion. It implies the emotion is transient (I have sadness now, but it will pass). On a side note, I’d love to look at incidence rates of depression in different countries, categorised by how their grammar handles negative emotions.

Hopefully, you can see how being regularly or constantly cognitively fused, especially when things aren’t all going to plan in your life, can have a real impact on your mental ill health. And the combination of rumination and cognitive fusion is really tough. Even if you’re managing not to succumb to psychological ill health, the two represent a significant burden to your thinking and emotions.

So now that you have a good understanding of rumination and cognitive fusion, in the next post I’ll start to explain how mindfulness meditation works to halt the negative effects of these two thinking modes.

 

Chewing the cud

In this series of posts, I’m dispelling a couple of myths about what meditation is, and explain how it strengthens your mind. I show why there are psychological and physical benefits to meditation, how those benefits change over time, and how you can learn to incorporate beneficial meditation into your life, even if you don’t have time to sit down and meditate at all.

Everything I talk about in these blogs comes from my own experience learning mindfulness, as well as research findings from the scientific literature and my time as Chief Medical Officer of the mindfulness app Headspace. I’m not religious, or a trained mindfulness trainer – I’m just fascinated by how this age-old tool works, and how much potential it has to help us.

You can find the first post in the series here


 

In the last post, I explained the fundamental component of mindfulness mediation – the meditation cycle. The more reps of the cycle you do, the stronger your mental muscle (the anterior cingulate cortex) gets. And you need to get distracted by a train of thought to complete a cycle, so those distracting trains of thought shouldn’t annoy you – they’re part of the process!

In order to understand why mindfulness meditation has such profound and wide-ranging benefits in your everyday life, I need to quickly explain a bit of psychology. Come with me, as, over the next couple of posts, we examine two of the most unhelpful modes of thinking that humans engage in – rumination and cognitive fusion.

Rumination (and why it’s better left to cows)

In the animal world, ruminants are the group of animals who eat plants by repeatedly regurgitating, chewing and re-swallowing them (“chewing the cud”) to aid in the breakdown of the difficult-to-digest cellulose – rumination.

This gives a clue as to its meaning in psychology. Coined in the 90’s by Nolen-Hoeksema, it refers to our tendency to replay negative feelings and experiences in our minds. We’ve all done it – the argument with a spouse, the unforeseen event that derails your project – whatever the trigger, we play it over and over in our minds. “If only I had…”, “I should have…”, “How could I have…” Why do we do this? We’re trying to solve the problem in our minds, as a self-defense mechanism. This may be an attempt to alleviate the upset by finding a different course of action that we can call upon should we ever face the same problem again in the future. It’s a basic survival instinct.

The problem is that it’s not without consequences. We think that by going over it again and again, perhaps we’ll find a better solution. But the truth is that’s unlikely. However in the meantime we’re subjecting ourselves to the negative emotions associated with whatever happened over and over again. It’s like cutting your finger, and instead of cleaning it and putting a plaster on it, you keep reopening the cut and making it bleed again. Do you think that’s going to help it heal?

And it’s not just that it’s unpleasant to keep feeling those feelings over and over. It’s actively bad for you. Remember that our brains are designed to get better at doing things you do a lot of? Well, if we’re doing a lot of negative thinking, guess what we’re getting better at doing! We’re rehearsing negative thoughts, and literally cutting a groove in the record. This is a major predictor of depression and anxiety.

Rumination has a physical impact too. The fear/fight/flight system in your brain is very sensitive, and doesn’t pay any attention to whether a threat is in the past, the present or the future. It also doesn’t differentiate between real or imagined (or remembered, as in this case.) It’s just on the lookout for ‘threat’. So when we’re ruminating, we’re repeatedly activating this system, which causes the release of the stress-hormone cortisol into our blood, artificially elevating its resting concentration. This has horrible consequences for our bodies – chronically elevated cortisol levels have been shown to depress our immune systems, elevate our risk of heart disease, cause premature atrophy of parts of the brain, and make us deposit fat around our organs and abdomen.

So, when we’re ruminating, although we think we’re trying to soothe or protect ourselves by finding a better (imagined) outcome, we’re actually damaging both our physical and psychological health. Which I think is a very good reason for why we should leave the rumination to cows!

In the next post, I’ll describe the other common unhelpful mode of thinking – cognitive fusion. And then I’ll explain how mindfulness meditation directly combats both of these psychological nasties.

The meditation cycle

In this series of posts, I’m dispelling a couple of myths about what meditation is, and explaining how it strengthens your mind. I show why there are psychological and physical benefits to meditation, how those benefits change over time, and how you can learn to incorporate beneficial meditation into your life, even if you don’t have time to sit down and meditate at all.

Everything I talk about in these blogs comes from my own experience learning mindfulness, as well as research findings from the scientific literature and my time as Chief Medical Officer of the mindfulness app Headspace. I’m not religious, or a trained mindfulness trainer – I’m just fascinated by how this age-old tool works, and how much potential it has to help us.


So here’s the thing about meditation: It’s really really simple. And you should never feel bad that you can’t seem to be rid of the mental chatter. The chatter is an essential part of the meditation, and without it you wouldn’t make any progress!

But before I get in to that, I just want you to think about strengthening a muscle at the gym. It doesn’t matter whether it’s with a free weight, a resistance band, or a complicated machine, there are two things that have to be true for you to strengthen your muscle.

First, you need some sort of resistance pulling against the muscle. That’s what the weight or band is for. Without it, you’d just be moving your body against air, and that wouldn’t make you any stronger!

Second, you have to push/pull against the resistance many times over to build up strength. It’s the repetitions that actually build the muscle, whether you’re toning, bulking or strengthening. Nothing happens with only one rep!

OK, so meditation is like an exercise for your brain. It strengthens particular mental muscles. Now, there are different forms of meditation, and they can overlay different techniques like visualisation or mantras. But fundamentally, mindfulness meditation centres on a simple cycle of focusing your attention on something (often your breath), attempting to maintaining the focus, inevitably getting caught up in a train of thought, and noticing that you’ve gotten distracted and bringing your attention back to whatever you started on. This is the fundamental meditation cycle (see diagram). And each time round the loop is like one rep with a weight in the gym.

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Hopefully, a couple of things are obvious from this. For one, anyone can do it. If you have the ability to pay attention to something even for just a few seconds, you can do meditation. Secondly, that mental chatter that always seems to interrupt your focus? That’s a necessary part of the cycle, and it will always happen (if it doesn’t, check whether you have a pulse.) And it’s a good thing, because without the thoughts that bubble up and distract you, you’d have no resistance for your muscle to work against. And just like working out in the gym, the more reps you do, the stronger you get. So getting distracted by a train of thought is a good thing. The more often you do it, notice it’s happened, and regain your focus, the stronger your mental muscle is getting.

What are these mental muscles I keep going on about? Well, that’s actually quite interesting. When you focus your attention on something, various networks in your brain’s frontal cortex are working together to give you that focus, and at the same time to block out other things – sounds in the background, feelings in your body and even unrelated thoughts. It turns out there’s a particular area, called the anterior cingulate cortex, whose job it is to monitor for conflicts between what you want to focus on and where your attention actually is. It’s like a red light / green light. When you want to focus on something, say your breath, and you are successfully doing that, the anterior cingulate shines green. But when you wanted to focus on your breath and you’re actually thinking about your latest Facebook update, it shines red. When you notice it’s red, you become aware that you’re not focusing where you wanted to, and you can then renew your focus. You can see this in the diagram following the  big arrows labelled ‘Focus’. From the moment you put (or return) your focus on to your breath (or whatever you’re focussing on) to the moment you get lost in thought, the anterior cingulate is shining green, like the arrow. When you become distracted by a train of thought, the anterior cingulate goes red, and stays red until you notice it and refocus your attention.

Fortunately, brains are very good at getting better at whatever we do a lot of. So, the anterior cingulate is strengthened by repetitions of the meditation cycle. Just like a muscle, the more often you use it, the stronger it gets – effectively the brighter the light shines red or green. As it gets brighter, you notice it sooner when it changes from green to red, which means you spend less time in each repetition of the cycle lost in thought.

The muscle analogy doesn’t just end there though. Just like how hard you can work out at the gym is affected by how well you’ve slept, how well nourished you are, and how much you’ve worked the muscle already, your anterior cingulate – in fact all your brain muscles – are affected by how frazzled/stressed/sleep-deprived/etc. you are. So some days you start to meditate and it seems effortless, and you get to the end and think yes, I’m definitely getting better at this. And then the next time you meditate, your thoughts are running rampant, and you start off focusing on your breath, only to get to the end of the session and realise you spent literally the whole session lost in thought. You didn’t even manage one rep! But that’s ok. Exactly like going to the gym, it’s not about seeing an improvement from one session to the next, every session. It’s about gradually seeing an improving trend.

So don’t get frustrated that the thoughts keep coming while you’re trying to meditate. Remember that that’s normal, and in fact you need them to give you the opportunity to go round the meditation cycle and strengthen your mental muscle.

In my next post, I’ll introduce you to two of the most harmful modes of thinking that we all do, and explain how they damage our mental, and physical, health.