Mindful

As we approach the New Year we are reminded of the opportunity of choosing new resolutions. Today I want to describe the skill of mindfulness. Some of you will already be using it regularly, but I think you will agree that it is a real gift to those who have not yet learned to use it. And of course you may have your own methodology to teach us. I am going to describe what I do: I hope it will be a good starting point.

I use it as a regular, nightly, occasion. It enables me to be alone with myself for a period of 10 to 15 minutes. It has the effect of reducing tensions (a good way to be ready for sleep) and bringing me peace. While not religious in itself, it is a valuable preparation for night prayers.

In a comfortable upright chair I start with a few moments looking at a picture I drew of my late wife’s hands. It somehow reminds me of her in a characteristic way. Perhaps mindfulness is not necessary in Heaven, but it assures me that she supports me in my efforts on earth.

I close my eyes and, for a minute or two, I look through my eyelids and the colours and shapes I can see. I do a similar action with my nose, and exploring my mouth and my ears.

Then I move down to my neck – a well known place for tension – and waggle both the top and bottom of it until it feels supple and relaxed. I stiffen and deliberately relax the muscles of my shoulders. And work down my arms to my fingers which, one by one, I feel gently in touch with my thighs.

This is followed by my deep breathing. There are three stages: the top of my chest, the middle, and the bottom. Over the years, incidentally, this exercise, common to yoga, has increased my lung capacity considerably.

Then I crunch my bottom up several times. I am told that this also strengthens the muscles of the waterworks. And, as we grow older, this is increasingly important. Women, I understand, are the more vulnerable. I then work down through thighs, legs and feet. But all the while I pause and check back that my loosened muscles have not slipped back into tension.

Following all this I move into to deep slow breathing for as long as I wish. In practice I use an oven timer to tell me when to finish. I don’t want to distract my mind with watching the clock.

There is no magic here. You may well benefit from your first occasion but you need to follow the exercise for a week or ten days before you can clearly see how it has helped you to be at peace – not only during the exercise but in your whole approach to tension. Here is an anecdote: last week I had an examination in hospital which involved putting a line down my throat, and the full length of my oesophagus. I am told that some people need a sedative for this, but I just used mindfulness, and I was fine. So, it happily turned out, was my oesophagus!

Try it!

About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Neuroscience, Quentin queries. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Mindful

  1. David Smith says:

    Relaxing, taking a breather, turning off the noise and sitting or lying quietly is good, for the soul and for the body. The human brain wants to chatter. Quiet is unnatural for us. We learn tricks in order to order our thoughts, so it’s only natural that we learn tricks to turn them off.

    Good, Quentin, on the test coming up empty.

  2. Alasdair says:

    Wilderness provides the best possibility for being mindful and rediscovering yourself. Of course it isn’t always silent, there’s the hooting of raptors, howling of stags, not to mention wind and water.

  3. Iona says:

    But it’s silence in that the things you can hear are not making demands on you. They are just wild animals and nature doing their own thing.

  4. galerimo says:

    “Health and well being” is big business and a major preoccupation for our world.

    When it offers to deal with our anxieties and stress, and other maladies resulting from the busy, noisy world we live in, the “self-care” industry just grows and never appears short of an answer,

    Mindfulness, as The Cure “du Jour”, is certainly a popular practice that you come across when you feel the need to chill out a bit more. As you point out, it is not a religious practice.

    But what happens once I have chilled out? What do I do then? Sleep or say my prayers better? Improved breathing is a good outcome, as is the ability to dispense with the need for a tranquilizer.

    But maybe we are dissipating symptoms here and the result is that we continue to mask the real causes of our restlessness, worry, distraction, irritation and the like.

    Practices like this could well be seen as totally self-referencing. And I am not sure that escaping to the wilderness is any different in so far as it makes the natural surroundings serve “my” purposes. And may well make the world out there all about my needs.

    This health industry focuses a lot on feelings, appearances and very often, youthfulness. These could well become the idols that make life easier but also less real for human beings.

    Loving God, with all your heart and soul and mind covers the whole of our human reality and it points to a way of focusing totally on the “Other”, also a way to be true to ourselves as well as to love others, human and non-human.

    With our life weariness and all that flesh is heir to, there is a need to be careful with “false gods” too subtly and too easily worshipped.

    Maybe look at how Jesus goes to the wilderness to be with someone and Martha, Martha is stressing because she is avoiding doing the same.

    Not just a question of tightening and loosening their bum muscles!

    • David Smith says:

      “This health industry focuses a lot on feelings, appearances and very often, youthfulness. These could well become the idols that make life easier but also less real for human beings.”

      I’m pretty sure that humans operate far more on feelings than on logical thought, so focusing on feelings is probably a sensible thing for health workers to do. In fact, thinking well may be possible only if feelings are up in positive territory. Depression, anger, and the other downer emotions are likely, I’d imagine, to throw a monkey wrench into the cognitive machinery. Logic can play *some* role in good health. We can, theoretically, argue ourselves into feeling good, but the reverse probably happens far oftener.

      Incidentally, I imagine that we know that our thinking is getting good results mainly because we feel good about them. “Aha!” “Bingo!” “Eureka!” “Yes, that feels/sounds/looks right.”

  5. Quentin says:

    We should remember that mindfulness is not a mysterious, perhaps spiritual, activity. It is simply an action of the brain which we can learn to control. We all have tensions, worries and depressions. Mostly they are no more than a nuisance but for some they are a serious disability.

    Mindfulness relaxes the brain and allows it to think calmly and intelligently. Now we can quietly discover the best actions needed to deal with our challenges. In some cases we cannot solve an issue. Here our quiet brains help us to accept the bad situation, realising that our distress is negative and solves nothing.

  6. David Smith says:

    Has utilitarianism perhaps invaded the world of meditation? If so, that may have been inevitable, in a society in which everything is valued by its material worth: “I don’t have time for this, unless it can help me do X better. How do the experts rate the payback potential?”

  7. David Smith says:

    “We all have tensions, worries and depressions. Mostly they are no more than a nuisance but for some they are a serious disability.”

    The title of a book by Hans Selye, a Canadian stress researcher, is “Stress without Distress”. The idea, I imagine, is that stress is a survival tool that we can’t live without. It’s only when it gets out of control that we turn dysfunctional.

    https://tinyurl.com/yb53xegg

  8. ignatius says:

    Hans Selye became hugely famous for ‘The stress of life’ which was basically the story of his 1970’s research into the stress mechanism of illness. He had noticed as a doctor that most ill people presented with a similar tariff of symptoms and had begun to posit an underlying physiological mechanism of ‘illness behaviour’ that kicked in once the threat to the organism reached a certain level. From him has come our developed understanding of the ‘fight or flight’ neuro endocrine response. I think he may have gained a Nobel prize for what was then truly groundbreaking research.
    I have followed the outworking of Selye’s thesis closely over the years as the whole physiology of ‘stress’ is of keen interest to osteopathic thinking and philosophy. The Stress of Life is well worth a read but it is worth bearing in mind that Selye was not primarily concerned with mild anxiety states arising from ontological concerns but from the concerted attacks upon the system of disease.
    Of course Selye began to philosophize out from his discoveries and his writings gave weight to the plausibility of psychosomatic illness and to the concept of allostatic load which is now well established in medicine .Allostatic load is a simple and neat formulation of the long held view that
    single straws can together accumulate sufficient weight to break the backs of camels.
    Having spent 30 odd years as an osteopath listening to – and then wrapping my arms around
    suffering individuals ( albeit from behind the safety of a white coat) I have come to the conclusion that we are all made of similar but slightly varying stuff, each of us having our own specific parameters.
    Some of us will be able to act upon and modify our emotional states in the way Quentin describes and some will not – because the basal physiological state accessed through mindfulness techniques will itself vary in stability and excitability. Pretty much anything that calms us down will work to a degree..I use a truncated form of the Jesus prayer or a silent and, as near as can be, subliminal rosary either with or without breathing synchronisation.

    Still it might be worth remembering that excitability too has its uses St john was boiled in oil which must have caused him some degree of excitability…but he survived it and then wrote the book of Revelation!!….Happy new year all

  9. ignatius says:

    Quentin:
    “We should remember that mindfulness is not a mysterious, perhaps spiritual, activity. It is simply an action of the brain which we can learn to control…”
    I think you are going against the mainstream of centuries of contemplative thinking here Quentin.See this excellent and pleasant little text by Martin laird:
    Into The Silent Land By Martin Laird | at Amazon | amazon.co.uk‎

    • Quentin says:

      Perhaps if I had put mindfulness within inverted commas you would have realised that I was referring to the popular technique which I was describing. The possible connection between this and religious contemplation is incidental. Body and soul are fused and so complementary.

      • ignatius says:

        Quentin,
        Sorry but if you dig around into the history of the ‘mindfulness’ movement you will find its roots are self confessedly monastic whether Christian, Taoist or Buddhist. I am precisely aware of the ‘popular technique’ you speak of Quentin and have probably read the same texts as you. We teach mindfulness in the prison and I recommend the practice of it to some patients- in either the religious or the secular wrapping. But make no mistake,, ‘mindfulness’ comes out of the religious stable, it may just be that you have not personally encountered it there before,

  10. Alasdair says:

    A poor life this if, full of care,
    We make no time to stand and stare
    (Apologies to W H Davies)

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