"Then it is dark; a night where kings in golden suits ride elephants over the mountains." - John Cheever

Sunday, July 01, 2007


Mindfulness, to put it as plainly as possible, is the ability to observe one's own internal sensations with the calm clarity of an external witness. It has been described by the great Buddhist monk Nyanaponika as "the clear and single-minded awareness of what actually happens to us and in us, at the successive moments of perception."

I came across the concept and practice of mindfulness when I first started trying to actively manage my Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) about 3 years ago. In his book Brain Lock Jeffrey Schwarz advocates using mindfulness as part of his 4 step approach to managing the condition, basically through being mindfully aware of distressing thoughts as they arise and working around them rather than trying to argue with them or push them away (which - owing to the mechanism of OCD - makes them more likely to recur).

As well as being a useful technique for managing a troublesome psychiatric disorder, it turns out mindfulness is a central tenet of buddhism. By paying non judgemental bare attention to one's internal states one is able to observe things as they really are rather than continually reacting to thoughts, feelings and emotions. Two quotes from the Buddha:

"Mindfulness, I declare, is all-helpful"
"All things can be mastered by mindfulness"

Mindfulness can be cultivated by regularly meditating - most commonly by focusing on observing one's breathing. There are quite a few guided meditation mp3s out there on the internet - the introductions and lead throughs by Kamalashila linked to here are pretty good, I think. I try and do a 15 or 20 minute meditation on most days and certainly find it beneficial.

"May all beings be happy" :-)


Tom said...

Gosh - thanks John, that's really helpful. Interestingly, and as I think I mentioned, it seems to have some similarities in its approach to CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy). By accepting their presence but also trying not to be too bothered by harmful repetitive thoughts, they seem to lose their potency and hold.

John said...

That's good to hear Tom! My understanding is that mindfulness has become a pretty hot topic in psychiatry in recent years and deservedly so I think.

Like your CBT exercises, it's important to perform mindfulness practice - intellectualising about the topic doesn't help particularly. It's been found that meditation practice can act to physically change the function of the brain (neuroplasticity).

Col said...

On a more basic level, I've recently discovered the benefits of counting backwards. I can be a bit insomniac, when something similar to repetitive thoughts can keep me awake. By slowly counting backwards from, say, 100, it keeps the weird thoughts at bay and helps me drop off again. I'm interested in investigating this mindfulness stuff further - thanks John.

Tom said...

I attended a yoga class last night, which is also quite helpful. It's not the same as meditation, but it does encourage you to focus your mind on physical processes - principally breathing, but also particular muscles, which can be quite helpful in terms of discouraging restless and unwanted thoughts.

John said...

I'd like to try yoga, but am slightly put off by tales of mass farting as certain positions are assumed. Is this an urban myth?

Less facetiously I had a surf lesson at Falmouth Surf School last year where they're quite keen on combining yoga and surfing - yoga very good for pre surfing warming up etc...