What if you know mindfulness is good for you, but you still find reasons why it can’t be fitted into your day. What if you have studied innumerable raisins close up in the service of mindful attention but you still don’t like raisins. What if your mind is always full but not of the thoughts and feelings that are helpful. What do you do instead?
Mindfulness has entered the mainstream. There is hardly a leadership programme that does not include it. Major plcs as diverse as PWC, Glaxo SmithKline and Google provide programmes and even special space for mindfulness breaks during the day. Harvard University offers it to students, and state schools include it as part of examination preparation. The 8 week programme of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) developed by Jon Kabat Zinn to help clients with symptoms of stress and anxiety is now offered far beyond its original mental health setting. When high street retailer, Tesco, teaches mindfulness to staff at store level it is a signal that it is now so commonplace that a backlash is inevitable, and it is beginning to happen. Why is that? There is plentiful evidence of its efficacy when it becomes a committed practice. There are MRI scans which show how by regular mindfulness practice the brain is changed to think more positively, but the truth is most of us are not committed practitioners. We enjoy it whilst on a programme and when done with others. We recognise its value at times of stress, and then we forget. It takes up too much time, it becomes another thing to do, or our practice is so intermittent that we feel little value. Who am I talking about when I write this – me. I have done the 8 week programme, I have downloaded guided meditations, I have numerous mindfulness books sitting on the shelf, and yet I don’t continue to do the work. It’s not because I don’t need to, it’s because I am a natural resister of regular disciplines.
I kept my sloth quiet when amongst those committed to mindfulness, until I found an ally in the work of Emma Young. Her book ‘Sane’: written by a science and health journalist who shows a resistance to doing many of the things which she is told she should do in the name of well being struck a chord in me. In setting out to establish what really works and is supported by science, she filters out many of the contradictory messages we are given, and identifies the essentials for improving mental strength. Inevitably, she examines mindfulness, and concludes after talking with a range of researchers, that it is the disruption to mental thought processes which is key. Some may get it from mindfulness, others from running, playing a musical instrument, or making a cake. It is the value of the activity in keeping us in the moment, undistracted from any other thought or concern that gives the activity its recuperative power.
Now, I have discovered my form of disruption in the work of Heartmath®. Heartmath® is at its simplest a breathing technique to reduce stress and build resilience. However, it is based on the growing neuroscience evidence of the intelligence of the heart. The heart is not just a pump, it is an organ with neural circuits that it is continually in communication with the brain, informing it of our level of stress or relaxation. All those sayings which refer to the heart: heart broken, heart sore, heart weary , bleeding heart, heavy heart or heart to heart, are not accidental, they recognise that the heart is an active organ of emotion and communication. It is directly linked with our limbic system.
By learning how to breath in a heart focussed way, we can control the variability of our heart rhythm and bring it into a smooth coherent pattern which balances out our need for energy with our need for relaxation. In doing so we enhance our performance and ability to handle the demands of the day. What is powerful for those who like to see science in action is that with Heartmath® you can observe your own heart pattern through a bio-feedback application linked to smartphone technology. You can see how when you change your breathing you change the neurotransmitters which are driving emotional responses to events. And, of course, whilst engaging in managing breathing more effectively, you are not focused on the thoughts that were causing us negative emotions. It works for me, because I know that even 3 minutes of focused heart based breathing will support me in dealing with the demands of the day, and when the demands increase, a top up can be done quickly and inconspicuously.
Once I discovered its value for a failed mindfulness practitioner, I decided to use it with clients as another means for supporting their resilience. Clients like it, because even in the most demanding of situations they notice that by changing their breathing, they change their response (and no one even knows they are doing it). So, while mindfulness has undoubted benefits, if you cannot quieten your mind one way, simply find your way.