Recreational mindfulness

About ten years ago I worked as a recreational therapist in a hospital unit for patients with severe acquired brain injuries. Many of them could no longer walk, communicate verbally, eat food or look after themselves. While within the hierarchy of the hospital system, the job title ‘recreational therapist’ doesn’t carry quite the same weight as ‘neurosurgeon’ or ‘consultant’, I know that my role was important to the people I was working with. They often lived in this unit for years as they slowly tried to improve through slow-stream rehabilitation, and my job meant the difference for them between spending most of their time alone in a room with a blaring TV, or taking part in activities like wood work, gardening, cooking, sharing their favourite music with others, singing, going to a café or the zoo, celebrating special events and interacting with students, animals, and the general public. Their rehabilitation goals were integrated into the the therapy program, but, perhaps just as importantly, they had opportunities to interact, express themselves, participate in meaningful activities, lift their spirits and feel happy. There was a lot of sadness and grief in this unit, but also joy and resilience.

This experience gave me a wonderful insight into the importance of recreational activities, both individual and group-based, for our health and wellbeing. Adult colouring books are something many people clearly find helpful, and I think it’s great they’ve become so popular if it helps people to calm their mind and feel more relaxed. Nonetheless, as a mindfulness teacher I do cringe when I see them being marketed as ‘mindful colouring’ books, or even ‘Zen colouring in’! Colouring in can be done mindfully or mindlessly, as can gardening, cooking, playing sport, or any of the other recreational activities we enjoy. Just because something is beneficial doesn’t mean it’s mindfulness. We all have mindfulness within us, and some people can spend quite a bit of their lives in a mindful state without ever learning and practising it formally. Yet it’s misleading to call something ‘mindful (…)’ when the activity doesn’t actively develop non-judgmental awareness of the present moment.

When the word mindfulness becomes a marketing tool for colouring-in books, we’ve come a long way from Buddhist mindfulness and therapeutic mindfulness. If we want mindfulness to be an ongoing part of our lives, rather than something which appears and disappears by chance, we do need to challenge ourselves through a commitment to an ongoing, formal practice. It’s when we step outside our comfort zone and try a new approach to our difficulties that the changes mindfulness can make to our lives begin to happen. It’s not easy to learn this through books and apps alone, which is why I always recommend attending courses or retreats with an experienced teacher. Mindfulness is simple, but not easy – regardless of what the marketing tries to tell us!

Weekly practice idea:

Take ten minutes to reflect on what mindfulness means to you, based on the four meanings of mindfulness we’ve discussed – you could do this sitting quietly somewhere, or perhaps through journalling. What emerges for you?

Anja Tanhane

Relaxation mindfulness

We’re all familiar with aspects of the stress response – perhaps our heart is beating fast, our chest feels tight, we might feel nauseous or irritable or overwhelmed. Stress affects us differently – some people suffer more physical symptoms, others struggle mentally or have difficulties with interpersonal relationships. When stress becomes chronic, it’s likely to impact on all areas of our lives – our bodies might show a range of stress-related symptoms, our mind isn’t thinking clearly and we might feel teary or anxious, and our relationships can become increasingly strained as we feel overwhelmed by the demands of others when we’re barely managing our own.

Yet stress isn’t all bad – the right amount of stress can motivate us to focus, achieve and develop new skills and resilience. It’s when stress becomes chronic and relentless that it starts to have a negative effect on us. Fortunately, even though we might be more familiar with the stress response at the moment, we can also learn what has been called by Herbert Benson the ‘relaxation response’ – our body’s ability to relax and regenerate.

There are quite a number of different techniques which can induce the relaxation response – some of the best known are progressive muscle relaxation, where we systematically tense and relax groups of muscles throughout our body, and also guided imagery, where we are guided on an imaginary journey to a beautiful, restorative place. Focusing on a word during prayer (such as peace or shalom), practising yoga or Tai chi, even knitting and running, can all activate the relaxation response.

Mindfulness, in its meaning of non-judgmental awareness of the present moment, doesn’t try to directly evoke the relaxation response. For example, rather than going on an inner journey to a beautiful place, a mindfulness meditation might involve an open, accepting awareness of difficult emotions and painful body sensations. However, because mindfulness has become a buzz word and is ubiquitous now, the distinction between practices involving the relaxation response and those involving mindfulness has become blurred. This is a shame, because mindfulness is only one aspect of what can be helpful for us – there are ancient traditions of contemplative prayer, mantra meditation, visualisation and so on which also deserve our attention and respect. Also, by throwing just about everything under the banner of mindfulness, we dilute what mindfulness can actually offer us.

Over time, a regular mindfulness practice will also help us to be more relaxed, as we become less caught up in the difficult aspects of our lives. Yet I wonder if some people might actually be more interested in learning the relaxation response – it meets their needs for managing day-to-day stress more directly, and gives immediate positive feedback.

Mindfulness is a particular way of approaching the world – to develop its non-judgmental stance requires good teaching and regular practice. We can all have experiences of mindfulness as part of our everyday lives, but to make mindfulness one of the central aspects of how we live requires more than a little dabbling here and there. On the other hand, we can all benefit from increasing our experiences of the relaxation response, by including practices in our lives which balance the stress response with the relaxation response.

Weekly practice idea:

What helps you feel relaxed? Write down a list of five or more activities you find relaxing, and choose one of them to practise this week. How does it feel to make time for the relaxation response in your life?

Anja Tanhane

Therapeutic mindfulness

One of the most exciting developments in mindfulness over the past four decades has been its increasing use for therapeutic aims – to support people who are dealing with chronic health issues, life-threatening illnesses, depression, anxiety, trauma and a range of other physical and mental challenges. There are thousands of studies which validate the use of therapeutic mindfulness, and countless people have been helped by learning mindfulness as part of their treatment plan. From better pain management, improved immunity and decreased inflammatory response to improved mood, lower anxiety and improved relationships, there is clear evidence that mindfulness can be used therapeutically. It’s not a replacement for medical treatments, counselling or medication, but it can support these other therapies and enhance their effectiveness.

Unfortunately, this is also an area where mindfulness can do more harm than good, if it is taught by inexperienced practitioners to people with certain vulnerabilities. Learning mindfulness can initially increase our experience of pain, difficult thoughts and negative emotions, as we slow down enough to really become aware of them, and this can be unsettling. Even people who are not dealing with major difficulties are often quite dismayed when they start to meditate and realise just how frantically busy their mind always is, and how little, if any, time they actually spend in the present moment. With the right support and guidance from an experienced and trained practitioner, these early stages can be worked with and can lead to increased affect tolerance, personal growth and resilience. Often people learn mindfulness while also supported by counselling and/or medication, and this can be very effective. Yet, at the moment, anyone can call themselves a mindfulness teacher, whether they’re highly qualified, or whether they simply like the sound of it and are making it up as they go along (I’ve met a few people in the second category!). Mindfulness may also be contra-indicated for people who are experiencing psychosis, schizophrenia, or other conditions where dissociation may be present.

When taught by someone suitably qualified, therapeutic mindfulness has the potential to significantly shift our relationship to the difficulties of our lives. As we practise non-judgmental awareness, acceptance, beginner’s mind, letting go, we slowly and gradually learn to become less caught up in emotional reactiveness and unhelpful thought patterns. I’ve been teaching the eight-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course for eight years now, and consistently, by week four or five, participants report significant shifts in how they are approaching the challenges of their lives. They describe being more calm, less reactive, less caught up in painful emotions, being able to see the bigger picture. They find they often have a choice of how to respond to difficulties, and they talk about exploring new and better options, which is very empowering.

Weekly practice idea:

Take ten to twenty minutes to sit somewhere quiet and notice your breath coming and going. When the mind wanders off, gently bring it back to the breath. What do you notice in your thoughts, your body sensations, your emotions?

Anja Tanhane

Buddhist mindfulness

Many of the concepts and practices of mindfulness which are now taught in secular mindfulness courses come from the Buddhist tradition. This doesn’t mean mindfulness is uniquely Buddhist – all cultures have various practices which encourage a state of mindfulness. However, mindfulness, or sati, as it’s called in Buddhism, has been researched and developed for more than 2500 years in the Buddhist tradition since it forms a fundamental part of what is known as the ‘eight-fold noble path’. It is considered a key element of the Buddhist way of life, together with ethics and insight. The Buddha emphasised sati as a foundational practice, one of the keys to learning how to become less entangled in our self-centered thoughts and delusions. He also understood that mindfulness takes diligent practice – it’s not something to be learnt so much as practised again and again. In Buddhism, sati is practised not to help us feel better or become more efficient at work, but to support realisation into the fundamental nature of existence, such as impermanence, no-self and emptiness. It assumes a world view where these concepts are accepted. And although modern physics seems to show some interesting parallels with Buddhist concepts, the Buddhist notions of no-self and emptiness are quite different to Western secular or Christian understandings of the self and the spiritual path. Sati helps to deconstruct our sense of self until we understand that there is no independently existing self – every aspect of who we are is contingent on external forces and conditions.

Sati is also closely linked to ethics in Buddhism – our speech, our jobs, our intentions and actions are all part of the eight-fold path. Buddhist teachers sometimes criticise secular mindfulness teachers for taking mindfulness out of the ethical context in which it is taught in Buddhism. My experience in teaching and practising mindfulness is that a more mindful life does lead to greater awareness of how our behaviours impact on ourselves and others. Many of my students have reported choosing their words more carefully, for example, when they’re having that difficult conversation with their teenager or their colleague, and how this led to a much better outcome for all. I do agree though with Buddhist teachers and also with Jon Kabat-Zinn that mindfulness is a way of life, not a method. When mindfulness becomes no more than a tool to achieve an immediate end, such as reducing staff absenteeism, then most of its gifts and richness are lost.

We are fortunate nowadays that we don’t need to be a Buddhist or join a sect or follow some guru in order to learn meditation and experience its benefits. The work of Jon Kabat-Zinn and others who have brought mindfulness from the Buddhist context into the Western clinical setting has made learning mindfulness accessible to many more people, and this has been of tremendous benefit. Very few of those learning mindfulness now would want to become a signed-up Buddhist, and they don’t need to be. Yet we can learn from Buddhism and allow mindfulness to be within our own ethical, spiritual and philosophical framework, rather than just something we want to learn as a quick-fix to a particular problem in our life.

Weekly practice idea:

Do you see mindfulness as a way of life rather than a method? What does this mean for you? Allow yourself twenty minutes to reflect on this question – what emerges for you?

Anja Tanhane