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The concept of 'mindfulness' can be embraced by sceptics too

I'm an Australian living in the UK who likes brunch and books. I'm kind of reserved until the conversation moves to punctuation, The Simpsons, or systematic injustice.

What to do when your need for evidence trumps your need for inner peace

From SheKnows Australia

Those who have tapped into their New Age-y side might bleat positive affirmations, do some yogic poses or practice mindful meditation to restore their inner sense of peace. But what are sceptics to do?

Unable to speak positively without feeling hopelessly naïve, unable to bend into a pretzel shape without a trip to the emergency room and restless in even the thought of sitting still, eyes closed, for 10 minutes — peace seems off-limits for those with a loud, rational mind.

Even the most sceptical folk can be impressed by the effectiveness of mindfulness shown in a range of studies. A 2006 study based in Australia lauded the potential of mindfulness to help manage the symptoms of both mental and physical problems. Another recent study tentatively suggested that mindfulness can be a helpful strategy to promote the wellbeing and academic achievement of final year high school students. Other studies have found that mindfulness techniques help reduce binge eating and help people to reinterpret situations in order to regulate the emotional impacts.

Of course, the evidence doesn’t necessarily make it easier to find the time or inclination to actually meditate. Particularly when, for me at least, it is very difficult to see the positive effects of such an exercise straight away.

In part, that’s the point. In mindfulness meditation your awareness is on the background noise of your existence, not necessarily on the value or meaning of it. Non-judgement is central, and thus, when you start evaluating your experience, you’re no longer doing it.

This is a big problem for people who prefer an evidence base to their regular practices. How do you know it’s working for you when you’re told you can’t judge it? The problem is compounded by the fact that mindfulness is not easy — particularly for people who are constantly busy. Mindfulness might be stressful sometimes. It can also be deflating, tiring and otherwise unpleasant. But the unpleasantness is part of a process, just like the pain of forming a callous when you’re starting to learn guitar.

Nobody suggests that it is advisable to be in a state of mindfulness at all times. Evaluation and reflection on past experiences — including the experience of mindfulness itself — is important. But in order to give the activity a chance, it is likewise important to suspend judgement and keep an open mind, at least for the time being. Your evaluation of mindfulness is best placed after a few months of practice.

By practicing, then waiting, we can eliminate the cyclic trap of sceptical overthinking. The evidence base is good, so you try it. Your experience isn't great, so you stop and question the study's validity. Stop the wheel! Trust the peer review process until you've given yourself a good chance.

Here are some ways you can tell if it is working for you a few months down the road:

  • You find it easier to focus on tasks.
  • You feel less restless in situations you find boring, like waiting for a bad movie to end, waiting for your turn to speak in a conversation, taking time to get to a destination, etc.
  • When travelling to a familiar place (such as work, the grocery store or a relative’s house) you notice new things about your environment and you aren’t as likely to forget chunks of your journey.
  • When you have unpleasant thoughts or emotions, you feel less consumed by them. You have a greater awareness of how the thoughts will pass.
  • You generally have a better mood.

"This is all very well and good", you may say, "but how do you find time to start in the first place?" Routine helps. Find a good time in your day, set a phone reminder, and consistently do it just as you would always brush your teeth before bed. It takes a while to form better habits, but once they're set, it becomes much easier.

While it's important to stick to the commitment of mindfulness, self-care shouldn't be a chore. There's a difference between a reluctance to practice each day and full-blown dreading. Meditative practice should not add to your stress levels, so putting it at a good time and doing it in a way where you could, at some point, conceivably look forward to it, is ideal.

If the idea of meditation doesn’t work for you for whatever reason, that’s OK. Meditation is not the only way to practice mindfulness. You can practice it by walking, playing a simple game, or even eating. Colouring is likewise a popular option. There are also many different mindfulness meditation programs and apps you can choose from, so try a few and see what makes you feel most comfortable.

The profound benefits of mindfulness can be accessible to even the most sceptical, as long as you are willing to suspend judgement for short periods of time to actually undertake the practice. Eventually, your need for evidence may be satiated with your own long-term experiences.

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