Fit to be tried: Mindfulness

What’s a good way to ease tension, seek a sliver of serenity, and calm that troublesome mental chatter? Try taking a course in mindfulness.

But first the title: why learn a technique that sounds like “mind fullness” when most of us would be keen to avoid some of the estimated 70,000 thoughts we have a day?

“When we take the time to notice what’s going on inside ourselves, we discover our mind is a very busy place,” says Mary O’Callaghan, a psychotherapist and mindfulness trainer, and director of Dublin’s Oscailt Integrative Health Centre.

Mindfulness meditation aims to bring a more conscious awareness to our daily lives.

“We spend of a lot of our time thinking about the past or planning for the future, and this causes worry and anxiety that robs us of the ability to be truly present, either to ourselves or those we come in contact with,” says Ms Callaghan, who lived as a Buddhist nun for eight years.

Repetitive thinking can become automatic and destructive, she says.

“One of the many liberating insights people achieve on a mindfulness course is the realisation that their thoughts are not facts.”

Mindfulness comes from a Buddhist term and originates from the word sati, first translated in 1881 by a Pali language scholar as “right mindfulness, the active and watchful mind”.

The mindfulness course at Oscailt runs for eight weeks, and means doing about 35 minutes of meditation daily. This training is a challenge “not for the faint-hearted”, warns Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the programme.

Luckily, Ms Callaghan is a patient teacher, who guides us through “body scan” meditation.

But coffee, a late babysitter and an even later bus send my mind spinning off its axis, and I learn there’s a sergeant-major in my brain who takes advantage of my supine position: “Ah, you’re lying down, here’s a list of urgent thoughts.”

Such mental gymnastics are common, says Ms Callaghan.

“Just bring your awareness back to your breath, and be gentle. Thoughts are just a mental event, and trying to hang on to them is like trying to make a cloud concrete.”

The body-scan technique is a good method for beginners. It means slowly focusing your awareness across everything from your breath to your toes to your inner organs.

The result brings a glimpse of conscious serenity — awake but completely relaxed.

It’s important to try out new skills each day. I’m not great solo, but Oscailt provides a CD to back up the hands-on instruction, and following this audio cue is simple.

There’s also a seated meditation. This is tough, as it can be uncomfortable.

Just persist, says Ms Callaghan. “It’s not so much what we do, but the manner in which we do it that either creates speed and anxiety or calm and ease — the choice is ours.”

Well, it might take a former Buddhist nun to know that, but it works for me.

[Amanda Phelan, Irish Independent]
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