Could mindfulness be the answer?

JANUARY 19 — It’s been a surreal year — a global pandemic, Brexit and the carnage left behind by Donald Trump’s presidency — and even the most composed among us is pedalling twice as fast just to hold our balance. 

I’ve recently signed up to an online mindfulness course to keep me thinking positively during this complicated period.

I asked Catherine Marie of Experimental Mindfulness to share her thoughts on this technique. She’s half French/half Dutch and her childhood years spanned several European countries including Spain, Italy, Belgium and Portugal. 

She’s a former student of the prestigious Ecole Normale supérieure de Lyon and holds a PhD from Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne where she previously taught philosophy.

Like many of us, Catherine has a lot going on but she invariably manages to incorporate mindfulness into her daily routine. She’s also passionate about sharing its benefits with others. Here’s a summary of our Q&A session:

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness meditation is “experimental” (hence the name of my practice “Experimental Mindfulness”!). Just as scientists perform experiments and observe the results, mindfulness uses the same approach: you try it and see if it works for you.

Contrary to what people think, it’s a very concrete experience and not “woo woo” at all — scientific research shows that it can reduce stress and anxiety, help with focus and resilience and improve relationships.

It’s about “training your attention to come back to the present moment”, freeing yourself from the habits of mind that hinder ease, responsiveness and well-being. It helps you cultivate an open, curious and caring awareness.

Mindfulness is also about cultivating qualities of the heart — lovingkindness (from the Pali word “metta”) — to embrace any moment of experience with this important quality.

How did you get into it?

I come from an academic background and while it’s cool to have all these qualifications, I did not cope well with the highly competitive and stressful environment I found myself in back in 2006. My mind was very busy — too busy.

My doctor recommended I look into “mindfulness” and around the same time, a friend of mine who went through the loss of a loved one had posted on Facebook that mindfulness had really helped her go through the grieving process. 

I thought to myself if something helps people cope with the loss of someone, something so hard, then I want to learn that thing myself.

Tell me about the mindfulness course you did?

I went to Los Angeles as part of my PhD, in 2014. I didn’t know at the time that California was a mecca for yoga and well-being and when I was there, I took a six-week introductory course with Celeste Young of insightLA meditation

It really changed my life... and my friends did not recognise me as I was so calm. Even if things were not okay, I was “still okay” with them. I still felt intense emotions — like immense sadness — but I was able to “experience them in slow motion” just like in a movie and they became a lot less gripping. I could deal with my emotions without them being too painful.

How does it work?

Well, I learned a lot about “stress” management during this course. The mindfulness sessions (lasting 1 hour 30 minutes/week plus daily practice slots of 10-30 minutes) allowed me to let go of unnecessary thoughts, such as negative emotions feedback-loops that were a large cause of my stress.

So, instead of resisting these thoughts and pushing them away or acting out, you try and observe them; “welcome them as a guest.” 

I was taught to use the acronym RAIN to process negative emotions: Recognise, Accept, Investigate and Non-identification. You learn that these emotions are “not you”, you are not your sadness, you are not your stress — stress is “just a visitor” and it does not define you.

Sometimes, when we feel something so strongly, it is easy to think it is who we are and who we will always be, rather than just framing it as a “temporary guest” that is just passing. Making this connection of an emotion being temporary, not permanent, helps a lot; even the hardest moments are just fleeting.

What are its origins?

Mindfulness has its origins in Buddhist meditation teachings. The word comes from Pali (the local language used where Buddha lived) and its Sanskrit counterpart “smrti”, which both originate from the verb “sarati” meaning “to remember” or “to bear in mind.”

Jon Kabat-Zinn, an American medical professor, was the first to introduce this Buddhist meditation technique to the West in the 1970s by incorporating it into a medical therapy programme called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), which is now offered by hospitals worldwide.

Mindfulness is mostly about remembering to be present because we constantly forget to be present. We get caught up in thoughts and over-identify with worries, memories and planning. 

So, like with the Buddhist meditation teachings, the main thing is coming back to the present moment and embracing it with a sense of openness and care.

Why teach it?

After several silent retreats, I became so intrigued with the power of mindfulness that I decided to take it one step further: I completed the teacher training course 2019/20 with Martin Aylward and Mark Coleman of the Mindfulness Training Institute.

I really wanted to share these life-changing techniques with friends who were going through hard times. Life’s challenges never disappear but the way we tend to them can change. We can switch from reactivity to response, from resistance to ease, from absence to presence.

We are often faced with a channel that is “chattering” and being able to resist what is said by our inner voice is hugely liberating. Thoughts are something that happen; not something that is true.

How can a beginner start their own daily mindfulness sessions?

For beginners, these six simplified steps can be practised daily:

Step 1: Find a place to sit that feels calm and quiet to you.

Step 2: Start with 5-10 minutes every day for the first week, then slowly add more time (10 minutes the next, 15 the week after ).

Step 3: Body awareness — scan your body from head to toes, inviting each part to be more relaxed (the eyebrows, jaw, chest and belly generally hold more tension).

Step 4: Follow your breathing—the sensation of your breath as it goes in and out.  Invite a sense of curiosity, as though you were observing your breath for the first time

Step 5: Notice when your mind has wandered and simply return your attention to your breathing.

Step 6: Be kind to your wandering mind — don’t judge yourself or obsess over the content of the thoughts you find yourself lost in. Just come back to Step 4 and your breathing as many times as necessary. The mind will wander and that’s ok! What matters is noticing it has wandered: the moment you see your mind has wandered is a moment of “mindfulness.”

But remember that mindfulness is like sport; you can read about it but it is never the same as practising it.

I’ve signed up for Catherine’s six-week (1 hour 30 minutes/week) mindfulness course this month as part of my New Year’s resolution. 2021 is already looking a little more manageable...

Classes are offered on a donation basis in both English and French, 30 minutes to 1 hour 30 minutes duration. Catherine can be contacted at: [email protected]com and her website is: https://en.mindfulnessinparis.com/.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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