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Mindfulness: More than just a buzzword?

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Unless you've been living under a rock for the past few years, you're probably aware of the fashionable trend known as mindfulness. But what exactly is this mysterious activity and how can we benefit from it?

To call mindfulness a craze would be a bit strange. It is, after all, meant to improve your well-being. But there is an element of hype around mindfulness and a fair bit of industry, too — mindfulness coaches and courses, mindful mediation and even mindful colouring books for adults (these are great, by the way).

As the word suggests, mindfulness is about training your mind by focusing your attention on the present moment. This sounds simple, but our modern lives are plagued with distractions.

This morning, for example, I woke up and grabbed my phone to check the time. I then read the news of the day, which left me with a feeling of emptiness and a hint of anxiety. As I got in the shower, my thoughts were racing between Donald Trump, North Korea, the royal commission and impending deadlines.

Needless to say, this was not a mindful morning. Rather than acknowledging my thoughts as I prepared for the day and returning to the object of my focus — the water from the shower falling on my skin, the simple activity of brushing my teeth — I was distracted by my judgements about my thoughts.

The discipline

According to a research paper released by Harvard University, we spend 47 per cent of our waking lives thinking about matters that have either occurred in the past or on things that may or may not transpire in the future. The research found that it is this mind-wandering that is the root cause of our unhappiness and various mental health concerns.

According to lawyer and mindfulness practitioner Paul Pitsaras, mindfulness can easily be practiced throughout the day when we're engaged in prolonged activities. 

"With our lives consisting of a series of mundane, prolonged acts, we become more desensitised to our environment," Mr Pitsaras says.

"We repeat these actions so many times that they become a part of our subconscious programming and it is when we are in this auto-pilot mode that our mind begins to wander."

Consider your role at work for a moment: what are some of the prolonged acts that take up your day? Is it during these moments when your mind drifts back to regretting the past or worries about the future?

"Mindfulness can prevent our mind from wandering by intentionally spawning our undivided attention to the present moment during any mundane or prolonged act that we perform throughout the course of our day," Mr Pitsaras says.

"For example, it can be applied to the act of brushing our teeth, driving to work, having a cup of tea, going for a walk or any other act we may consider to be mundane or part of our daily routine. 

"If we were to take the act of your lunchtime walk, for instance, your sole objective would be to bring your attention to your internal and external experiences as they are occurring in the present moment and to sustain this attention control from the beginning to the end of your walk."

When practising mindfulness, our conscious mind confronts our subconscious programming, becoming the observer of our thoughts and anchoring our awareness to the present moment. 

The benefits 

When we're completely present in the moment, we're not concerned about matters outside of our control, such as incidents that occurred in the past or matters that may or may not transpire in the future.

Rather, we're operating from an objective and all-encompassing bird's-eye perspective, enabling us to remain calm, create opportunities and make rational choices for life's events.

It is from this platform that we can exercise overlapping psychological processes such as critical thinking and emotional intelligence and execute decisions that are informed, affirmative and unbiased.

"The benefits of practising mindfulness are abundant," Mr Pitsaras says. 

"From a mental health perspective, it's a simple, non-prescriptive measure that can be used to reduce and, with prolonged practice, even eradicate stress, anxiety, depression, chronic pain and addiction.

"Practising mindfulness cultivates the ability to become the observer of our thoughts as they arise in the moment. This facilitates a mental process that acknowledges we are the sum of our experiences and beliefs. It is from this position that we are able to minimise adverse judgements or decisions and unconscious bias."

Improve your performance

High-performance mindfulness coach Emma Murray has been working with the Richmond Football Club for the last three years. Her work with the players helped the team win the AFL premiership, and she regularly works with corporate leaders and business owners looking for an edge over their competitors. 

"I have little exercises that they can do, three minutes a day. They can do it when they go to the gym, while they are in the car or before they go into a meeting," Ms Murray says. "The research tells us that when we are doing attention control training for three minutes a day, every day, for eight weeks, we rewire our brain. That has been shown on MRI scans." 

Research shows that 47 per cent of the time, people are "off-task" and not really focusing on what they are doing. They are not being mindful. Ms Murray believes that the consequences of being off-task can be significant.

"When we are off-task, the danger is in where our thoughts go, the stories and movies in our mind about all the things we haven't done, what is still to be done and all the negative stuff," the mindfulness coach says. 

"When we are mentally off-task, our thoughts don't go to the positive. We go to those bad stories that make us worried. Then we get the symptoms of fight-or-flight and are more easily diagnosed with anxiety and depression."

After working with Ms Murray, many business owners have seen positive results that extend well beyond improved performance at work.

"I have corporates and athletes come back to me and tell me they are getting more done and that they are performing better, but that they also don't have as much road rage," the expert explains. 

"They find themselves communicating with their partner better. There is not as much stress in their lives. They have tools that allow them to be more present at meetings, to be more effective in getting through their to-do list, to be able to switch off when they get home and have more separation between their work and their families."

5 one-minute mindfulness activities

1.    Mindful eating: Notice the appearance, texture, aroma and flavour of your food with each bite you take. 

2.    Mindful moment: Spend some time staring out the window or into the distance to give your mind a break. Try watching the leaves on a tree or the reflection of the sun on grass or water. 

3.    Air on skin: Notice the air on your skin, whether it's warm or cold, and the texture of your clothes against your skin. 

4.    Body scan: Scan your body from top to toe and take time to notice how your body feels. Become aware of any physical sensations of comfort or ease. 

5.    Mindful breathing: Observe the breath flowing into and out of your lungs. Notice the sensations on your nostrils, rib cage and stomach.

James Mitchell is a Sydney-based journalist and the editor of Wellness Daily. 

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“Kindness is the language that the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” – Mark Twain