How Does Mindfulness Work?
‘You see, I think everything’s terrible anyhow. And I know, I’ve been everywhere and seen everything and done everything.’
Daisy in F Scott Fitzgerald’s, ‘The Great Gatsby’
If you start the day by listening to the news or if you sit down to watch it in the evening, it can be quite hard to believe that things aren’t indeed ‘terrible’. Life is sometimes tough and no-one is immune to the difficult times that life can bring. But life can be wonderful too, sometimes for sustained periods and sometimes for shorter moments too.
When the dominant talk is of doom and gloom it can be harder to really experience the brilliance of life, particularly if the brilliance is for brief moments. If you feel fed up for example, with a lack of daylight and the seemingly endless dark Winter nights, you might not register the beauty of the stars. Looking up may even seem irrelevant when there is so much that seems to indicate that we should be looking down but Winter passes and the stars are out for less time once the Spring arrives again. Being mindful of how each moment has the potential to contain something great can be a way of thinking that brings our focus to the beauty of being in the present moment.
The practice of mindfulness is a way to train ourselves to live fully in the present, really experiencing the time right now. Research suggests that if practiced, mindfulness has the potential to greatly enhance the quality and experience of life. Dr Sara Lazar at Harvard Medical School has identified four core aspects of how mindfulness works. The first is attention regulation. This involves training the mind to overcome distraction and according to researchers, this ability to still the mind helps a person feel less flustered and ‘all over the place’ or in mindfulness ‘speak’….more centred. The second aspect of mindfulness relates to having a good awareness of your own emotions and the emotions of others. In order to develop empathy, it is important (essential) to be able to sense how you are feeling first.
The third component of mindfulness relates to emotion regulation. By allowing feelings and emotions that might normally be avoided to come up, be expressed, and therefore processed, mindfulness can help a person build up their capacity to bear undesirable feelings such as hurt, sadness or fear. The final element that I believe is the key to successful mindfulness is that it can change a person’s perspective of themselves. With practice, mindfulness can lead to a less static or less definite definition of one’s self and it can lead to the realization that we are constantly in a state of evolving. A more fluid existence is believed to lead to less stress and potentially more enjoyment of what’s happening in any given moment. An awareness of how we change all the time makes each difficult moment more bearable and each great moment more precious. So if I could transplant myself into Daisy’s world, in the first chapter of The Great Gatsby, I would ask her why she was cynical. You’ve been everywhere and seen everything and done everything? How about not going or doing but just being…. how about just that? Just for a moment, just to stop and be?