A group of US Marines sit cross-legged on the grass at Quantico barracks in Virginia. M16 rifles are slung across their backs. Dog tags are blowing lazily in the breeze. It’s been a long hard day of counter-insurgency training and advanced weapons’ drills.
Now it’s time for a spot of meditation in the evening sunshine.
Each Marine closes his eyes and breathes gently in and out. One by one they start to relax. Their broad shoulders and powerful chests soon move in fluid harmony with their breath. Knotted muscles unfurl. Gritted teeth loosen. Their grimy faces are soon the picture of peaceful tranquility.
Although it makes for an incongruous sight, the US Marines are embracing an ancient form of meditation known as ‘mindfulness’ – and they report remarkable results.
After eight weeks of meditating for just 15 minutes a day, the soldiers are far better at dealing with anxiety, stress, depression and insomnia. It helps them stay calm and focused in the thick of battle, while improving overall mental and physical fitness.
‘After the course, I wasn’t scatterbrained anymore,’ says Major Jeff Davis, a 40-year-old infantry officer. ‘I had no problem concentrating when I was upset. I can’t think of any aspect of my life that it hasn’t helped me with.’
It isn’t just the US Marines who are using mindfulness meditation. Ruby Wax is an aficionado. Hollywood stars such as Goldie Hawn have embraced it. And academics at Oxford and Cambridge teach it to their students to help them cope with exam stress.
Mindfulness has now become one of the hottest topics in mental health. One study, in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, has shown that it increases happiness and well-being, while a major study in Psychological Science revealed such changes help regular meditators live longer, healthier lives. Other research has shown that it improves memory, creativity, and reaction times. It also boosts the immune system and lowers blood pressure.
Over the past month alone, studies have shown that mindfulness can help with rheumatoid arthritis, chronic fatigue syndrome, and might even aid weight loss.
Mindfulness, although it has its roots in Buddhism, is an entirely secular type of ‘brain training’. It is also deceptively simple. It is simply paying full, wholehearted attention to one single thing at a time – usually the breath as it flows into and out of the lungs. 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.
This gradually weans you off the compulsive addiction to judging everything as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. This stream of mental commentary fuels the sense of background unease and disquiet that drives anxiety, stress, and depression.
If you spend a little time each day ‘living in the moment’ by observing the way thoughts pop into your mind, negative ways of thinking simply run into the sand. You become far less self-critical and destructive.
Professor Mark Williams, a clinical psychologist at Oxford University and co-author of the bestseller Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World, says: ‘Mindfulness is about being compassionate with yourself.
‘Mindfulness teaches you to treat feelings of unhappiness and stress as if they were black clouds in the sky, and to watch them as they drift past. It allows you to catch negative thoughts before they tip you into a downward spiral.’
‘Just 10-20 minutes per day of mindfulness meditation can have a significant benefit on overall mental health and wellbeing.’
My own experiences with mindfulness have been nothing less than remarkable. I first came across it six years ago following a paragliding accident that almost left me permanently crippled.
My ordeal began when a freak gust of wind caught me off-guard as I was flying over the Cotswold Hills in southern England. One moment my paraglider was flying normally, the next its wing had collapsed, sending me tumbling head over heels into the hillside thirty feet below.
After a moment of stunned silence, I was struck with the most agonising pain imaginable. I soon realised why; the lower half of my right leg had been driven up through my knee and into my thigh. I could see the outline of my fractured shin bone lifting the cloth of my jeans. I quickly went into shock and my body was wracked with violent uncontrollable spasms.
As I lay on the hillside, I remembered a form of meditation that I’d been taught in school as a way of tackling exam nerves. Over the years I’d used it off and on to deal with the usual stresses and strains of daily life, but never in times of real physical pain and suffering. I knew that meditation had been used as a painkiller so, in sheer desperation, I began to meditate.
I began by forcing myself to breathe slowly and deeply, to focus on the sensations the breath made as it flowed in and out of my body. I pictured myself in a beautiful garden, and imagined myself inhaling its tranquil air as I did so. Gradually, breath by breath, the pain became more distant. It felt less ‘personal’, almost as if I was watching it on TV – or through a thin mist – rather than experiencing it directly. It helped me cope until the ambulance arrived with a welcome dose of morphine.
It turned out that I would need three major operations to rebuild my leg. I also needed a newly invented device, a Taylor Spatial Frame, to be surgically attached to my leg for up to 18 months to repair the damage. Consisting of four equally spaced rings that encircled my lower leg, the frame looked like a cross between a Meccano set and a medieval torture device. Fourteen metal spokes and two bolts connected these rings to the shards of bone inside my leg, and allowed the surgeon to move the fragments around inside.
As you can imagine, life with the frame was intolerable. Sleep was virtually impossible and the pain from my injuries was only controlled with powerful drugs that left me washed-out and jaded. I felt thoroughly anxious, irritable and highly stressed. It was clear that no amount of ‘positive thinking’ could lift my mood, so I decided to find an alternative way coping with my stress and pain.
I soon learned of a technique known as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) that was similar to the form of meditation that I’d used as a make-shift painkiller following my accident. It was developed by Professor Mark Williams and his colleagues at the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Toronto for the treatment of depression. Seven major clinical trials have shown it to be at least as effective as drugs or counselling for treating the condition. In fact, it’s now one of the preferred treatments for depression recommended by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence.
MBCT is also a very effective treatment for anxiety, stress and exhaustion – conditions that I had become all too familiar with following my accident. I’m convinced that my regular practice of mindfulness is one of the major reasons why I recovered from my injuries in double-quick time: the leg frame was removed after just 17 weeks rather than the normal six to 18 months.
My experiences with mindfulness are hardly unique. Doctors are now using it to help patients cope with chronic pain and suffering. Such is the power of mindfulness that you can actually see the benefits taking root in the brain.
The BBC’s Breakfast program recently followed Fiona Assersohn and their Arts and Culture Correspondent David Sillito as they attended a mindfulness course. Scientists at the London’s Institute of Psychiatry monitored their progress using a brain scanner. I appeared on the programme to discuss the significance of their findings.
Fiona has suffered from the crippling autoimmune disease lupus for many years. The disease left her with near constant pain in her shoulders, neck and other major joints. You can even ‘see’ her suffering using a brain scanner. The parts of her brain associated with pain and the emotional turmoil that follows in its wake were lit up like a Christmas tree.
After the meditation, however, something remarkable happened – her brain activity was visibly calmer and more serene.
‘It’s not that the pain goes away,’ says Fiona. ‘It’s that it becomes more manageable. It can be put in its place and dealt with. I now use mindfulness all the time and it helps me with my pain.’
David Sillito reported equally profound benefits. Before meditating his brain was clearly under stress but afterwards it was visibly calmer.
‘I have definitely decided to carry on with it,’ he says.
The benefits of mindfulness appear after just a few sessions of meditation but also build up over time. Researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital in America have found that if people continue to meditate over several years, the physical structure of the brain is altered for the better. The brain’s emotional thermostat is reset and they are taken off a ‘hair-trigger’.
Given time, this means that you’re more likely to feel happy rather than sad, increasingly likely to live with ease rather than be angry or aggressive, and be energised rather than tired and listless. These are the benefits reported by the US Marines who have undergone mindfulness training.
Hermes Oliva, a Navy medic assigned to the Marines, was initially highly sceptical but ‘did a 180’ once he was stationed in Iraq’s Anbar province.
‘In my tent at night all by myself, I started doing those exercises,” he says. ‘It would help me recognize the symptoms of stress in my body before they got out of control. It helped me cope.’
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