Can you remember the last time you lay in bed wrestling with your thoughts? You desperately wanted your mind to become calm, to just be quiet, so that you could get some sleep. But whatever you tried seemed to fail. Every time you forced yourself not to think, your thoughts exploded into life with renewed strength. You told yourself not to worry, but suddenly discovered countless new things to worry about. You tried fluffing up the pillow and rolling over to get more comfortable, but soon enough, you began thinking again. As the night ground ever onwards, your strength progressively drained away, leaving you feeling fragile and broken. By the time the alarm went off, you were exhausted, bad tempered and thoroughly miserable.
Throughout the next day you had the opposite problem – you wanted to be wide awake, but could hardly stop yawning. You stumbled into work, but weren’t really present. You couldn’t concentrate. Your eyes were red and puffy. Your whole body ached and your mind felt empty. You’d stare at the pile of papers on your desk for ages, hoping something, anything, would turn up so that you could gather enough momentum to do a day’s work. In meetings, you could barely keep your eyes open, let alone contribute anything intelligent. It seemed as though your life had begun to slip through your fingers … you felt ever-more anxious, stressed and exhausted.
The secret to sustained happiness
Mindfulness is about how you can find peace and contentment in such troubled and frantic times as these. Or rather, this is a book about how you can rediscover them; for there are deep wellsprings of peace and contentment living inside us all, no matter how trapped and distraught we might feel. They’re just waiting to be liberated from the cage that our frantic and relentless way of life has crafted for them.
We know this to be true because we – and our colleagues have been studying anxiety, stress and depression for over thirty years at Oxford University and other institutions around the world. This work has discovered the secret to sustained happiness and how you can successfully tackle anxiety, stress, exhaustion and even full-blown depression. It’s the kind of happiness and peace that gets into your bones and promotes a deep-seated authentic love of life, seeping into everything you do and helping you to cope more skilfully with the worst that life throws at you.
It’s a secret that was well understood in the ancient world and is kept alive in some cultures even today. But many of us in the Western world have largely forgotten how to live a good and joyful existence. And it’s often even worse than this. We try so hard to be happy that we end up missing the most important parts of our lives and destroying the very peace that we were seeking.
We wrote Mindfulness to help you understand where true happiness, peace and contentment can be found and how you can rediscover them for yourself. It will teach you how to free yourself progressively from anxiety, stress, unhappiness and exhaustion. We’re not promising eternal bliss; everyone experiences periods of pain and suffering and it’s naive and dangerous to pretend otherwise. And yet, it is possible to taste an alternative to the relentless struggle that pervades much of our daily lives.
In the book and in the accompanying CD we offer a series of simple practices that you can incorporate into your daily life. They are based on mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) which grew out of the inspiring work of Jon Kabat-Zinn at the UMass Medical Center in America. The MBCT programme was designed to help people who had suffered repeated bouts of serious depression to overcome their illness. Clinical trials show that it works. It’s been clinically proven to halve the risk of depression in those who have suffered the most debilitating forms of the illness. It’s at least as effective as antidepressants, and has none of their downsides. In fact, it is so effective that it’s now one of the preferred treatments recommended by the UK’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence.
The MBCT technique revolves around a form of meditation that was little known in the West until recently. Mindfulness meditation is so beautifully simple that it can be used by the rest of us to reveal our innate joie de vivre. Not only is this worthwhile in itself, but it can also prevent normal feelings of anxiety, stress and sadness from spiralling downwards into prolonged periods of unhappiness and exhaustion – or even serious clinical depression.
Focusing on the breath
A typical meditation consists of focusing your full attention on your breath as it flows in and out of your body (see the One-minute meditation, below). Focusing on each breath in this way allows you to observe your thoughts as they arise in your mind and, little by little, to let go of struggling with them. You come to realise that thoughts come and go of their own accord; that you are not your thoughts. You can watch as they appear in your mind, seemingly from thin air, and watch again as they disappear, like a soap bubble bursting. You come to the profound understanding that thoughts and feelings (including negative ones) are transient. They come and they go, and ultimately, you have a choice about whether to act on them or not.
Mindfulness is about observation without criticism; being compassionate with yourself. When unhappiness or stress hover overhead, rather than taking it all personally, you learn to treat them as if they were black clouds in the sky, and to observe them with friendly curiosity as they drift past. In essence, mindfulness allows you to catch negative thought patterns before they tip you into a downward spiral. It begins the process of putting you back in control of your life.
A One-minute Meditation
- Sit erect in a straight-backed chair. If possible, bring your back a little way from the rear of the chair so that your spine is selfsupporting. Your feet can be flat on the floor. Close your eyes or lower your gaze.
- Focus your attention on your breath as it flows in and out of your body. Stay in touch with the different sensations of each in-breath and each out-breath. Observe the breath without looking for anything special to happen. There is no need to alter your breathing in any way.
- After a while your mind may wander. When you notice this, gently bring your attention back to your breath, without giving yourself a hard time – the act of realising that your mind has wandered and bringing your attention back without criticising yourself is central to the practice of mindfulness meditation.
- Your mind may eventually become calm like a still pond – or it may not. Even if you get a sense of absolute stillness, it may only be fleeting. If you feel angry or exasperated, notice that this may be fleeting too. Whatever happens, just allow it to be as it is.
- After a minute, let your eyes open and take in the room again.
From Mindfulness, © 2011 by Mark Williams and Danny Penman, published by Piatkus.