When was the last time you focused all of your attention on eating a raisin? I had an easy time answering this, as I don't think I've ever really fully concentrated on the act of eating one. As with most readily available food items that I consume on a semi-regular basis, I chew away without giving much thought to the process. But apparently, by focusing all your attention on the here and now (and eating the raisin), you are able to appreciate it - and, allegedly, more significant things - so much more.
This is just one of the ideas that is explored in Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World by Professor Mark Williams and Dr Danny Penman. The book introduces readers to Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), which revolves around a simple method of mindfulness meditation. The eight-week programme consists of various exercises and guided meditations, and as part of one of the early practices, you're asked to sit down and completely focus all your attention on eating something small like a nut or a raisin. According to the book, this exercise helps you to understand how much of a difference paying attention and being fully present in the now can make to even the smaller things in life.
It is believed that by incorporating MBCT into your daily routine, you can combat unhappiness, stress, anxiety and mental exhaustion.
But what exactly makes mindfulness meditation different from the many other types of meditation that are out there? "Other types involve focusing the mind on an object or mantra and can lead to deep states of relaxation," explains Williams, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Oxford. "Mindfulness meditation uses the stability of meditation to broaden this out; it allows you to see the patterns of your mind and to create a friendly attitude towards them. It's a practice where you're not only invited to be kind to yourself - you're also invited to bring an attitude of curiosity alongside the patterns of your mind that sometimes lead you to undermine yourself or lower your self-esteem."
Williams goes on to explain that often people who are depressed try to suppress their strong feelings of worthlessness, which he says doesn't work. MBCT allows you to observe negative thoughts from a place of quietness and come to the realisation that that's all they are - nasty thoughts. "I like to liken negative thoughts to black clouds in the sky - they may cover the sky, but they don't affect the sky itself. They will move on," he explains.
There are reportedly a number of benefits to regularly practising MBCT. Psychological studies have shown that regular meditators are happier than average. It's also believed that anxiety, depression and irritability all decrease, memory improves and mental stamina increases. Interestingly, research has also shown how this technique is clinically proven to be at least as effective as drugs for treating depression and is recommended by the UK's National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. In the UK, mindfulness meditation is now being used in some schools to combat exam stress.
In the book, it is mentioned that many of us in the western world have largely forgotten how to live a good existence. Professor Williams explains this by saying how he believes the pace of life and the amount we expect ourselves to do puts a great pressure on us, and that MBCT can help to alleviate these pressures. "The end of one task is not met with a sense of achievement - we just take the next one in the queue and carry on. We say that once we finish a certain project we'll get back to do the things we enjoy. We postpone life because it's easy to put these things aside, yet these are what nourish us and give us perspective," he says.
As someone who is constantly looking for ways to deal with an overactive brain, I decided to try the programme. I'm currently halfway through and I must say that while I cannot completely shut myself off from life's pressures, the exercises help me to fully focus on the now and gain perspective. And, if nothing else, it's good to be able to appreciate the smaller things in life - even if it is just the taste of a raisin.
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