Turning the Tide – The role of mindfulness in promoting health

What is mindfulness?  It is a method of stress reduction first formulated by Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn, an American professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts.  He defined mindfulness as: “Paying attention, in the present moment, without judgement.”

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Although some of the concepts come out of eastern mysticism, there is much that has application to people with different world views.  It has been demonstrated that there is a profound link between the body and the mind.  The actions of the mind affect the body, and the state of the body affects the mind.  For instance people who are chronically stressed, tend to produce a lot of fight-or-flight chemicals from their adrenal glands, which can lead to a host of poor health outcomes.

Relaxation techniques can help to relieve this response. Much research has been done on yoga and meditation.    But other ways of relieving stress include positive coping strategies, physical activity, whole food diet, social support (particularly with a caring community), and sufficient sleep.

Mindfulness can be utilised in any activity:

  • Eating – mindfulness is a very useful technique for someone who grazes through huge amounts of processed foods mindlessly while watching TV. When we slow down and savour the flavours and textures of our food, we will find that we eat much less.
  • Listening to music – music has a powerful influence on our mind and our physiology. I’m sure you are very familiar with the way soundtracks on movies create an atmosphere for what is about to take place – romantic music before a romantic scene, or sinister music before a scary episode. Calming, tuneful music can slow down our heart rate and relieve stress.
  • Any top athlete will tell you that the biggest factor in success is the attitude of the mind.  But even for those who are using exercise to keep fit and improve health, our mental attitude can make a big difference to whether we keep up, or give up.  When I am going for a long bicycle ride early in the morning, it is a time of increased awareness of my surroundings – the sound of birds, the beauty of the sunrise, the smell of eucalyptus oil when riding through plantations of blue gum trees.   It is also a time for reflection and inspiration.  Some of my most creative thoughts happen when I am cycling, or working in my garden, or mowing the lawn.
  • Washing dishes. My grandchildren detest washing dishes.  But it is important for them to learn the discipline of doing things that may be unpleasant, but that are necessary. Something that makes the job bearable is me telling stories of my childhood while we work together on the job.  The act of sharing together and reflecting about the past makes time pass quickly, and before they know it the job is done. Some people use washing dishes as a time for prayer and thankfulness – and something mundane and burdensome can become a time of healing and inspiration.
  • Drinking tea for many cultures is a deeply spiritual exercise. But even for those of us not from the orient, there are a host of different flavoured teas that can make the experience refreshing,  relaxing and healing.

What can block mindfulness?

  • Overwork, where we have little time to reflect on what we are doing. For instance, doctors can get so busy seeing the line of patients waiting to see them, that they lose sight of the individual and his/her problems that is presenting to them.  It is important to take a deep breath before starting a new consultation and focus on the individual at hand.
  • Stand back and watch people who are absorbed in TV or computer games.  They are often out of touch with the reality around them – interacting with family or friends.
  • Rushing through life – trying to cram too much onto our plate. It is important to slow down. Some years ago Nissan incorporated in their advertisement this quote:  “Life’s a journey – enjoy the ride!”.  So often young people especially are so fixated on the future – the holidays; finishing school; starting a job; planning a family; retiring – that they lose the beauty and pleasure of the moment. Be mindful of your surroundings and the blessings of your life.
  • Interpersonal conflict. It is quite possible that conflict between spouses, or family members or work-mates can block our ability to positively absorb the good things in life.  We become so focussed on the negative and how we are affected, that we lose perspective.  The practice of mindfulness can help us to look beyond the conflict to all the other positives of life, and even to the good points of the person with whom we are conflicted.

I hope that this discussion has sensitised us to the importance of the present – slowing down to savour our present environment, and looking for the good in the events and people around us. No circumstance we face ever is devoid of some good.  We only truly learn positivity by focusing on the good in people and circumstances – living mindfully.

Next week we will start a short series on emotional well-being.

Dave Glass


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