What does the word ‘mindfulness’ conjure up for you? Something positive – or maybe something a bit wishy-washy that’s just too hard when life’s already so challenging? Whatever your impression, the concept is increasingly mainstream. Mindful practices recently introduced to health workers at Ngwelezana Hospital in KwaZulu-Natal to help them push back at pandemic stress are getting a big thumbs-up. So it feels like a good moment to check it out
Entire books have been written on the topic but many people aren’t mindful enough for that (yet), so here’s a starter summary with some real-life experiences that may inspire you to give it a go. We have to admit, the invitation to wiser responses, enriched relationships and a life-giving sense of perspective tantalises us 🙂
ALI MCALPIN spoke to Capetonians PAUL and COLLEEN STURROCK, who have been running mindfulness courses since 2016. Paul has a coaching/mentoring business and Colleen is a qualified clinical psychologist. They have three adult children
- Mindfulness simply means cultivating self-awareness – and doing it right now, in the present moment! This enables us to notice what’s happening with our thoughts, emotions and bodies, and to choose wisely how we act in response to these.
- Mindfulness originated in the East, but since awareness is a universal human quality, it’s no longer linked to a specific culture, tradition or religion. Mindfulness can enhance life at all times, but probably never more so than during these times of Covid.
THE HOW: FOUR FUNDAMENTALS
- Given the global Covid pandemic, it’s easy to worry about a future over which we have little control. Mindfulness helps us to recognise where our thoughts are spiralling, and to come back to living for today. Focusing on our senses helps us to do this. How often do we eat or drink and barely taste because we’re doing something else? If you’re eating, don’t just put the food into your face, savour it: notice all the flavours, aromas and textures. If we allow ourselves the time to stop and become fully aware of what we’re doing right now, our worry about the future feels less overwhelming.
- What to do if you’re in a state already? At some point you’ll notice how anxious you are: you’ll know that you don’t normally behave this way, and maybe you’ve just related to someone in a way that you wouldn’t normally. This is your waking-up moment! Notice your breathing, thoughts and emotions, and accept you’re far more anxious than you’d like to be, or that you’ve just ‘lost it’ with your child. Acknowledge that’s just how things are in this moment. After this pause, you’ve got an opportunity to respond in a wiser way! Don’t beat yourself up, just start again. This is the opposite of the traditional ‘pull yourself together’ approach.
‘Even a tiny bit of mindfulness, brought to any moment, can wake us up… we simply bring greater… non-judging, wise awareness to our unfolding moments’ — Mark Williams, Anglican priest and emeritus professor of clinical psychology, Oxford University
- When you’re over it all and can only think of escaping to your addictive series on Netflix, pause! Check in with how you are, and what you really need. Find an activity you enjoy. Whether it’s cooking, gardening or crafting, allow yourself to focus on the activity and engage all your senses. This will help energise and engage you with the challenges of life again.
- Just like starting a new physical fitness regime that takes months to build muscle, mindfulness requires practice and commitment to develop it fully. But you can start with small steps today!
‘WHAT MINDFULNESS DOES FOR ME’
STACEY CHANQUIN, 31, IS A CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGIST FROM OTTERY ‘As a psychologist, I wanted to invest into my own mental health. The mindfulness course run by the Sturrocks allowed me to slow down mentally in my fast-paced lifestyle. It helped me manage periods of anxiety by practising the various techniques, and become more present in my work and relationships. I’ve found the practices particularly helpful during the lockdown. Working from home and having a toddler and baby can be quite challenging. The techniques allow me to be aware of my different emotions and accept them without judgment. I use some of the techniques at night before I go to sleep, to allow my body and mind to calm down’
AMOS PETERSEN, 30, IS A MISSIONARY FROM SA’S WEST COAST CURRENTLY BASED IN MALTA ‘Mindfulness helps me tune out the noise, to find an amazing deep realm that I believe God has placed inside us all, and where He Himself can be found. When a billion fireworks are exploding inside my mind, if I find this place, become quiet and ground myself, it can be a time of deep healing. As I become silent before God, the honesty can begin’
JULIA MILLIGAN, 55, CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER AT NPO THE CLOTHING BANK, LIVES IN CONSTANTIA ‘Mindfulness helps me still my mind when it becomes scattered, reducing any anxiety I’m feeling. It’s also helped me realise that my thoughts and emotions are just thoughts and emotions, they’re not who I am, nor do they define me. Mindfulness helps me stay in the present rather than fixate about the future or ruminate about the past, and has taught me to offer myself self-compassion’
PAUL AND COLLEEN STURROCK, BOTH IN THEIR FIFTIES, LIVE IN BERGVLIET. COLLEEN IS A CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGIST IN TOKAI AND PAUL IS A LIFE COACH/MENTOR
Colleen: ‘I used to feel a high level of anxiety, the need to please, to be a ‘better Christian’. Since practising and teaching mindfulness, I’ve become more accepting of, and kind to, myself’
Paul: ‘Mindfulness helps me to be less reactive and critical. I am slowly learning how to be more open to who others are – not needing them to be who I want them to be. Others seem to appreciate this, and I am feeling freer!’
ENTREPRENEUR NOKU KATOM, 39, IS CURRENTLY STUDYING THEOLOGY AND LIVES IN SIMONDIUM, NEAR PAARL ‘I believe that mindfulness is necessary. It helps you position yourself, learn about yourself, and keep on learning! It enables you to put first things first, and for me that means relying on God.’
ANONYMOUS, CAPE TOWN, MALE IN HIS 30s, ‘I was experiencing a high level of conflict in my marriage but found that by practising mindfulness, I became aware of my feelings and physical reactions. This helped me gain perspective rather than just react to situations. I now have a far better marriage!’
WHAT’S THE SCIENCE? Neuroscientific research shows that the brain is neuroplastic, i.e. it has the ability to form new connections in response to learning or experience that allow it to reorganise itself and function better. By repeatedly practising mindfulness we can therefore actually change the structure of the brain dramatically, reducing our levels of stress, amplifying our ability to focus and increasing our overall well-being. Studies indicate that mindfulness, in particular, can increase resilience, enabling us to cope better and roll with the punches. Essentially, we can ‘rewire’ and ‘hardwire’ our brains to attain greater levels of peace, health, happiness, and joy
‘Mindfulness is a form of mental exercise, really’ — Dr Sara Lazar, neuroscientist at Harvard University
- Try a meditation app, such as Headspace, Calm or Soul Time
- Finding Peace in a Frantic World by Mark Williams and Danny Penman
- Consider attending a mindfulness workshop such as one run by the Sturrocks
- Mindful Christianity website
- See here the mindfulness techniques being practised by health workers at Ngwelezana Hospital in KwaZulu-Natal
WHEN YOU NEED A LITTLE MORE HELP
- The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) has a 24-hour hotline: 0800 455 6789. It can often contract professionals to counsel people who are not in a position to pay
- The Counselling Hub in Cape Town’s Woodstock offers tele-sessions (for 4-6 weeks at the same time weekly) during coronavirus restrictions. The cost is R50 per session or a donation that is affordable to you, submitted via the website
- Most private psychologists, counsellors and psychiatrists are still open during lockdown and can help you via a WhatsApp/Zoom/Skype video call
‘Don’t conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind ‘ — St Paul writing to the church in Rome around AD57