What the hell is mindfulness – and why you need it

My doctor calls it ‘The Roaring Forties’, I call it a s***fight. It’s life so churned up with so many competing responsibilities and emotions that it scrambles our brains.

I’m writing in a hospital room where my dear Dad is not well. My mind is flooded with fear and worry but every few minutes it erupts with other hot topics – my daughter’s first ever exams, the work lining up at the office, my son’s music camp, the dog, why Mary is so mean to Edith on Downton Abbey. I know, shove Edith, but when your mind is a raging torrent it’s amazing the flotsam that gets thrown up.

The only calm in the storm I can usually manage at times like these involves a couch dive, a glass of wine and the TV. That first sip and sight instantly anaesthetises my brain, but I’m not sure it helps me keeps me calm the next day.  And those Keep Calm and Carry on Signs – just not funny any more.

So I’ve started a month of mindfulness.

Mindfulness? It sounds silly. I’m mindful. I mind very much about everything. I mind about too much, too often. My mind is so mindful it’s a minefield. My mind is mined daily for information as superficial as socks and as deep as the meaning of life.  But my mind is also so full of so much rubbish and responsibility I am finding it hard to think straight, let alone get to the gold.

That’s what mindfulness is meant to do.

Mindfulness is all the rage at the moment. Silicon Valley is in love with it. So is Oprah Winfrey, Huffington Post Founder Ariana Huffington, actress Goldie Hawn and mega mouth Russell Brand. The Red Hot Chilli Peppers demand a meditation room back stage.

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Oprah Winfrey. Image via @oprah.

It is basically Buddhism lite - without the bells, prayer flags, incense, statues and singing. It’s a mind and self awareness training that teaches you to stay focused on what your doing and reduce information overload and stress. It’s calming, inner-cranium cooling and hip. Practitioners say it leads to structural changes in the brain that mean better physical and mental wellbeing, better relationships, inner contentment and slower ageing.  New research shows that for some, it can be as effective as anti-anxiety medication.

I’m often cynical about western new age appropriation of ancient traditions but I know mindfulness makes sense.

So I have volunteered to be Debrief Daily’s spiritual guinea pig. I’ve started ‘Mindful in May' an online mindfulness meditation campaign where we chronically stressed out westerners sign up and try to zen in. I’ve given money to friends who are running marathons for breast cancer, walked cities for blindness, cycled Vietnam for sight and swum for brain cancer. Now I’m going to ask people to sponsor me to sit and meditate. All money raised goes to simple clean water projects like wells and sand filters in developing countries.

I’m not good at begging so you can donate here to the campaign rather than for me.

In my early 30s I took part in a Buddhist retreat and even survived the extreme brain enema that is Vispassana meditation. Being stuck in a Himalayan retreat with guru backpackers, meditating for about six hours a day while not being able to speak for ten days very nearly sent me over the edge. I’ve never felt so tortured at a camp, nor so ecstatic as when it was over. But I did emerge with a mind that had been washed, clear, shiny and new.

Sarah in India

Then that lovely period of my life where I felt I could focus on my inner self was wiped out by a tsunami of work, life and the needs of others. And, as a consequence, I dropped meditation when I needed it most.

Luckily, mindfulness doesn’t involve hours of time – just a 10 minute window every day.  It began with a body meditation: I've been lying on the floor, listening to the guided practice as it asks me to feel sensation in my toes, legs and body.  It’s amazing just how calmer, clearer and happier a couple of sessions have made me feel.

So, if you ever feel your head is exploding with responsibility, rubbish and life I urge you to join me in giving mindfulness a go.

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