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The Benefits of Mindfulness meditation

Earlier in the week I wrote about the myths surrounding Mindfulness. It’s also worth bearing in mind the countless proven benefits of Mindfulness (more specifically Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy which lies at the heart of our book). In essence 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 again.

 

Over time, mindfulness brings about long-term changes in mood and levels of happiness and wellbeing. Scientific studies have shown that mindfulness not only prevents depression, but that it also positively affects the brain patterns underlying day-to-day anxiety, stress, depression and irritability so that when they arise, they dissolve away again more easily. Other studies have shown that regular meditators see their doctors less often and spend fewer days in hospital. Memory improves, creativity increases, and reaction times become faster.

 

The Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation

Numerous psychological studies have shown that regular meditators are happier and more contented than average. These are not just important results in themselves but have huge medical significance, as such positive emotions are linked to a longer and healthier life. Here are some of the main benefits:

  • Anxiety, depression and irritability all decrease with regular sessions of meditation;
  • Memory also improves, reaction times become faster and mental and physical stamina increases;
  • Regular meditators enjoy better and more fulfilling relationships;
  • Studies worldwide have found that meditation reduces the key indicators of chronic stress including hypertension;
  • Meditation has also been found to be effective in reducing the impact of serious conditions, such as chronic pain and cancer, and can even help to relieve drug and alcohol dependence;
  • Studies have now shown that meditation bolsters the immune system and thus helps to fight off colds, flu and other diseases.

 

These to me suggest that Meditation is pretty good for you! What do you think?

 

‘Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World’ by Professor Mark Williams and Dr Danny Penman is available now.

twitter: @DrDannyPenman

Dispelling the myths surrounding Mindfulness meditation

Countless myths surround Mindfulness meditation, so it’s worth occasionally reminding yourself what it is not.


  • Meditation is not a religion. Mindfulness is simply a method of mental training. Many people who practise meditation are themselves religious, but then again, many atheists and agnostics are keen meditators too.
  • You don’t have to sit cross-legged on the floor (like the pictures you may have seen in magazines or on TV) but you can if you want to. Most people who come to our classes sit on chairs to meditate, but you can also practise bringing mindful awareness to whatever you are doing, on buses, trains or while walking to work. You can meditate more or less anywhere.
  • Mindfulness practice does not take a lot of time, although some patience and persistence are required. Many people soon find that meditation liberates them from the pressures of time, so they have more of it to spend on other things.
  • Meditation is not complicated. Nor is it about ‘success’ or ‘failure’.  Even when meditation feels difficult, you’ll have learned something valuable about the workings of the mind and thus have benefited psychologically.
  • It will not deaden your mind or prevent you from striving towards important career or lifestyle goals; nor will it trick you into falsely adopting a Pollyanna attitude to life. Meditation is not about accepting the unacceptable. It is about seeing the world with greater clarity so that you can take wiser and more considered action to change those things which need to be changed. Meditation helps cultivate a deep and compassionate awareness that allows you to assess your goals and find the optimum path towards realising your deepest values.

 

‘Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World’ by Professor Mark Williams and Dr Danny Penman is available now.

twitter: @DrDannyPenman

The joy of sneezing

A sneezing fit is probably one of the most emphatic ways of interrupting a meditation. This happened to me a little earlier. I was deeply engaged in a breathing meditation, following my breath into and out of my nostrils, when I felt that telltale tingling at the tip of my nose. I knew where it was heading – there is nothing quite so compelling as a sneeze. The nose starts a tingling, the world momentarily stops spinning, the head leans back – and bamm! It hits you like a train.

 

It’s the height of the hay fever season so sneezing fits are only to be expected. I’ve been in this situation so many times before that I’ve lost count, but today I decided to play things a little differently. Instead of a sneezing fit interrupting the meditation, I made it a central feature of the meditation. Sneezing itself became the meditation. So next time you feel compelled to sneeze why not follow these ideas for meditating on your snuffles?

 

Here goes:

  • Focus your attention on where the sensations seem to be the most powerful and compelling. This may be on the tip of the nose or deeper inside, or perhaps near the upper lip or the back of the throat. There may be one sensation or a whole bundle. Consciously observe them. Try not to judge, describe or alter them in any way. Allow the feelings to be themselves and to do whatever they wish.
  • Your mind may become completely wrapped up in the sneeze. You might find feelings of distaste, embarrassment, annoyance, or even fear bubbling up. Accept your thoughts, feelings and emotions. Allow them to be just as they are. Gently shepherd your awareness back to the raw sensations of sneezing.
  • If the feelings begin to ebb away, consciously follow them as they dissipate. Again try not to judge or alter anything in any way.
  • If the feelings begin to build, follow them as they spread. The head may roll back of its own accord, twist to one side, or remain static. Every sneeze is different. As best you can, try not to change anything at all. With full awareness accept your body’s sensations and reflexes.
  • As consciously as you can, follow the sneeze as it builds to a crescendo and then dissipates. A second or third sneeze may start to build. Again, try to consciously accept whatever happens.

 

This sneezing meditation can be adapted to any scenario your body might conjure up. Aches, pains, cramps…. they can all act as work benches for the meditative mind.

‘Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World’ by Professor Mark Williams and Dr Danny Penman is available now.

twitter: @DrDannyPenman

The intensely frustrating queue…

It’s funny how Mindfulness can sometimes desert you when you need it the most. I was reminded of this earlier today when I went to post a parcel. I was in a bit of a rush… when I arrived at the Post Office I was greeted with an enormous queue snaking majestically out of the door. My heart naturally sank, and settled somewhere around my knees.

I muttered to myself: ‘Why don’t they just get on with it!’

Almost as soon as the words had left my lips I remembered that phrases like that are often signs of stress – not statements of fact. How often have you felt yourself thinking such things as ‘Why am I not enjoying this any more?’, ‘What’s the matter with me?’, ‘I can’t give up’ or ‘Something has to change!’

Again, often as not, these are signs of anxiety, stress, or the first stirrings of mental exhaustion.

As I remembered this, I also recalled the antidote: the Intensely Frustrating Queue Meditation (or Intensely Frustrating Line Meditation, if you’re American). The trip to the Post Office had turned into an unexpected opportunity to practice my Mindfulness meditation.

For those who don’t have a copy of our book ‘Mindfulness’, here’s the meditation:

 

The Intensely Frustrating Queue meditation

When you are in a queue in a supermarket or post office, see if you can become aware of your reactions when something holds up your progress. Perhaps you joined the ‘wrong’ queue, and are obsessing about whether to make a dash for another one that seems shorter? At these times, it is helpful to ‘check in’ with what’s going on in your mind. Taking a moment to ask yourself:

 

– What is going through my mind?

– What sensations are there in my body?

– What emotional reactions and impulses am I aware of?

 

Mindfulness accepts that some experiences are unpleasant. Mindfulness will, however, help by allowing you to tease apart the two major flavors of suffering—primary and secondary. Primary suffering is the initial stressor, such as the frustration of being in a long queue. You can acknowledge that it is not pleasant; it’s OK not to like it. Secondary suffering is all of the emotional turbulence that follows in its wake, such as anger and frustration, as well as any ensuing thoughts and feelings that often arise in tandem. See if you can see these clearly as well. See if it’s possible to allow the frustration to be here without trying to make it go away.

 

Stand tall.

Breathe.

Allow.

Be here.

 

This moment, too, is a moment of your life.

You may still feel pulses of frustration and impatience while you are in the queue, but these feelings will be less likely to spiral out of control. You may even become, for yourself and for others around you, an oasis of stillness…

After fifteen minutes or so of meditating, I finally reached the front of the queue. In the past, I would have been hot and bothered, but today I felt far more serene. My time in the queue could hardly have been described as ‘pleasant’ but neither was it particularly unpleasant. It was fifteen moments of my life in which I had been fully aware of being alive in all it’s majestic glory. And that is infinitely better than the alternative.

Mindfulness makes you ‘tougher’ too…

Mindfulness training has been proven to help relieve anxiety, stress and depression whilst boosting intelligence and creative thinking. It also enhances feelings of compassion and empathy. Some have claimed that these changes can make us ‘better people’. Obviously this is all good news, but it’s also necessary to have a degree of ‘toughness’ (we prefer the term ‘resilience’) to withstand life’s knocks and kick-backs.

Can Mindfulness help with this too? Or will regular meditation make you ‘too’ nice?

There’s good news on this front. Mindfulness has been found to boost resilience to quite a remarkable degree. Hardiness varies hugely from person to person. Some people thrive on stressful challenges that may daunt many others, whether these involve meeting ever-increasing work performance targets, trekking to the South Pole or being able to cope with three kids, a stressful job and mortgage payments.

What is it that makes ‘hardy’ people able to cope where others might wilt? Dr Suzanne Kobasa at City University of New York narrowed the field down to three psychological traits which she termed control, commitment and challenge. Another eminent psychologist, Dr Aaron Antonovsky, an Israeli medical sociologist, has also attempted to pin down the key psychological traits that allowed some to withstand extreme stress while others did not. He focused on Holocaust survivors and narrowed the search down to three traits which together add to having a sense of coherence: comprehensibility, manageability and meaningfulness. So ‘hardy’ people have a belief that their situation has inherent meaning that they can commit themselves to, that they can manage their life, and that their situation is understandable – that it is basically comprehensible, even if it seems chaotic and out of control.

To a large degree, all of the traits identified by both Kobasa and Antonovsky govern how resilient we are. Generally speaking, the higher you score on their scales the more able you are to cope with life’s trials and tribulations.

As part of their ongoing evaluation of the impact of their eight-week mindfulness training course, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s team at the University of Massachusetts Medical School decided to see whether meditation could boost these scores and thereby enhance hardiness. And the results were very clear cut indeed. In general, not only did the participants feel happier, more energised and less stressed, they also felt that they had far more control over their lives. They found that their lives had more meaning and that challenges should be seen as opportunities rather than threats. Other studies have replicated this finding.

But perhaps most intriguing of all is the realisation that these ‘fundamental’ character traits are not unchangeable after all. They can be changed for the better by just eight weeks of mindfulness training. And these transformations should not be underestimated because they can have huge significance for our day-to-day lives. While empathy, compassion and inner serenity are vital for overall wellbeing, a certain degree of hardiness is required too. And the cultivation of mindfulness can have a dramatic impact on these crucial aspects of our lives.

Overall ‘hardiness’ can be boosted by following the eight-week Mindfulness programme in the book: ‘Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World’ by Professor Mark Williams and Dr Danny Penman.

Meditating on a piece of chocolate – what could be better?

Wednesday 8th June 2011

Today was one of those day’s where I just needed some chocolate. You know that feeling! Rather than wolfing it down, I thought I’d run through our ‘Chocolate Meditation’. This has often been imitated by other teachers – and we’re glad that we’re adding to the sum of Mindfulness knowledge.

In the interests of full disclosure, my PhD was focused on the biochemistry of a disease of South American cocoa crops and was funded by the chocolate industry. And yes, I did get free chocolate from time to time! Gorgeous stuff too….

 

The chocolate meditation

Choose some chocolate – either a type that you’ve never tried before or one that you have not eaten recently. It might be dark and flavoursome, organic or fair-trade or, perhaps, cheap and trashy. The important thing is to choose a type you wouldn’t normally eat or that you consume only rarely. Here goes:

  • Open the packet. Inhale the aroma. Let it sweep over you.
  • Break off a piece and look at it. Really let your eyes drink in what it looks like, examining every nook and cranny.
  • Pop it in your mouth. See if it’s possible to hold it on your tongue and let it melt, noticing any tendency to suck at it. Chocolate has over 300 different flavours. See if you can sense some of them.
  • If you notice your mind wandering while you do this, simply notice where it went, then gently escort it back to the present moment.
  • After the chocolate has completely melted, swallow it very slowly and deliberately. Let it trickle down your throat.
  • Repeat this with one other piece.

How do you feel? Is it different from normal? Did the chocolate taste better than if you’d just eaten it at a normal breakneck pace?

This meditation can be found in our book ‘Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World’ by Professor Mark Williams and Dr Danny Penman. The book comes with a free CD of guided meditations based upon Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, which was co-developed by Mark at Oxford University.

When meditation becomes difficult

Sometimes meditation can be surprisingly difficult. I was reminded of this today. My mind would not be still. It kept on leaping around, chasing it’s own tail, following thought-stream after thought-stream…. until I realised, once again, that my concentration had lapsed. When you have days such as this, it pays to remember that in many ways the meditation is the moment when you realise that your mind has wandered. That’s the moment when you suddenly realise, deep down, that conscious awareness is different from thinking. Your thoughts are not you. This realisation may only last for a few seconds before your mind once again races off like a greyhound after a hare. But still, these can often be a very valuable few seconds.

So the next time you have a difficult meditation, try to inwardly smile at yourself and acknowledge that you’ve just discovered something very valuable indeed. You can then continue where you left off….

Mindfulness is happiness

A wonderful interview with Professor Mark Williams has just appeared in South Africa’s WealthWise Magazine. You can read it on their website here.

In the interview Mark explains that Mindfulness is, at its core, simply observation without criticism. It is seeing the world as it is, not how you want it to be, or through the distorting lens of your emotions.

Mark says: “The methods used to cultivate mindfulness were first recorded over two thousand years ago. It has long been central to wisdom traditions in Asia, particularly the Buddhist tradition, but the art of cultivating inner silence has been a central part of all religious traditions across the ages.

“Mindfulness meditation is a secular form of this tradition that anyone can learn. It trains us to pay deliberate attention to our experience, both external and internal. We learn to focus on what is happening from moment to moment with full intention and without judgment. Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges through such training, and the skill of developing and sustaining that awareness.

“In the UK, the NHS’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) has recommended Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) as a cost-effective treatment for preventing relapse in depression.

“Other research has found that MBCT reduces anxiety in people suffering from General Anxiety and Bipolar Disorders, and can help enhance the quality of life and reduce the stress in those with a diagnosis of cancer.”

Mark also makes the important point that Mindfulness training doesn’t just help with clinical level anxiety, stress and depression but with the normal problems that we all face on a daily basis.

Mark says: “The remarkable thing about mindfulness training is that the very same practices that help to release us from negative emotions also enhance positive emotions and well-being.  This is because mindfulness teaches us to be less ‘in our heads’ and more in our bodies and present to what is happening around us.  We become more aware of the sights, sounds, and tastes that we normally take for granted, so there comes a sense of reconnecting with life, and reclaiming a way of living that expresses our deepest values, rather than postponing peace and happiness for another day.”

Our book: Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World is available from bookshops nationwide (and from Amazon, of course). It will be published in the USA in October by Rodale with the title: Mindfulness: An Eight Week Plan For Finding Peace in a Frantic World.

My broken leg healed in half the time… all because I meditated

 

The Daily Mail has just published my article on how Mindfulness meditation helped me cope with the mental and physical pain of a horrific flying accident five years ago.


By Danny Penman

Meditation is often touted as a panacea for all manner of ailments, from chronic pain to anxiety, stress and even depression.

Like most sensible people, I’d always taken such sweeping claims with a large pinch of salt. However, five years ago I learned the power of meditation for myself after an accident left me critically injured and in constant pain.

A freak gust of wind caught me off-guard as I was paragliding over the Cotswolds. One moment my paraglider was flying normally, the next its wing had collapsed, sending me tumbling into the hillside 30ft below.

I was struck with the most agonising pain imaginable. The bone in 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 sticking through the cloth of my jeans. I went into shock and my body was racked with violent uncontrollable spasms.

As I lay on the hillside, I remembered a form of meditation I’d been taught in the sixth form of my comprehensive school in Neston, Cheshire, as a way of tackling exam nerves.

Over the years I’d used it to deal with the usual stresses and strains of daily life, but never in times of physical pain. But I knew that meditation (and self-hypnosis) had been used for pain relief and, as I lay on the hillside, in sheer desperation I tried them both.

I forced myself to breathe slowly and deeply, to focus on the sensations the breath made as it flowed in and out. I pictured myself in a beautiful garden and imagined myself inhaling its peaceful and tranquil air.

Gradually, breath by breath, the pain became more distant. It felt less ‘personal’, almost as if I was watching it on TV.

In hospital it became apparent how seriously injured I was — and just how effective a painkiller the meditation had been.

My leg was so badly broken that I would need three major operations. 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.

Life with the frame was intolerable. Sleep was virtually impossible, and the pain was controlled with powerful drugs that left me washed-out and jaded.

I felt thoroughly wretched — anxious, irritable and highly stressed. So I decided to find an alternative way of coping with the pain and of maximising my chances of recovery.

I discovered the work of Mark Williams, professor of clinical psychology at Oxford University. He and his colleagues at the universities of Cambridge, Toronto, and Massachusetts had spent 20 years studying the phenomenal power of meditation for treating anxiety and even full-blown depression.

They had turned it into a therapy known as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) that was gaining the support of doctors and scientists. It had even been endorsed by the U.S. National Institutes of Health and in Britain by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice).

One study, in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, has shown that it brings about long-term changes in levels of happiness and well-being, while a major study in Psychological Science revealed such changes help regular meditators live longer, healthier lives. It’s also been shown to be as effective as drugs for treating depression. In fact, it’s now one of the preferred treatments recommended by Nice.

A typical meditation session consists of focusing on breathing and the sensations it creates. This reduces the levels of stress hormones in the body which, in turn, enhances healing and boosts physical health.

It helps partly by teaching you to live in the present moment rather than worrying too much about the past or the future.

Faced with the evidence, I decided to try mindfulness meditation. I began each day with a ten-minute breathing meditation to calm the mind. At bedtime, I would meditate for 30 minutes while visualising a warm, white, healing light sweeping up and down my leg.

This simple meditation programme worked to an astonishing degree. My pain gradually subsided and I slashed my intake of painkillers by two-thirds. I also developed a more contented outlook, seeing my injuries as temporary problems that would gradually subside rather than as limb-threatening ones that might confine me to a wheelchair.

The MBCT is, I’m convinced, why I recovered in double-quick time: the leg frame was removed after just 17 weeks rather than the normal six to 18 months.

My progress astonished my doctors. Just after the final operation I joked with my surgeon that maybe my injuries hadn’t been as bad as I’d thought. He looked at me aghast and said: ‘Your leg was in the Top Five leg injuries I’ve treated with a Taylor Spatial Frame — and possibly higher.’

I still meditate for 30 minutes each day. So convinced am I by its benefits that I’ve written a book, with Professor Williams, that teaches mindfulness meditation.

And my recovery continues apace. Two years ago, at the age of 42, I took up running, and I’m currently hiking the 630-mile South West Coast Path in 50-mile sections. Given the severity of my injuries, that’s astonishing.

 

Click here for a 3 minute free meditation practice

Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World, by Professor Mark Williams and Dr Danny Penman, is published by Piatkus.

 

Daily Mail article HERE

 

More research extolling the virtues of Mindfulness

Just a quick post today as I’ve been busy (almost frantic, but not quite!) dealing with media enquiries about the book….

Quite a lot of scientific work has been published over the past few hours about the benefits of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) for a variety of conditions. It seems Mindfulness is good for Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) http://bit.ly/kO0YiK

Other research shows (not unexpectedly) that it’s great for anxiety and depression as well. http://bit.ly/jPIlMj Although we already knew this, it’s all grist to the mill.