March 2014

Pieter van Zyl.

Learning to live in the here and now is a powerful tool for coping with the stresses of everyday life and van bring peace of mind

LET each mouthful of food be a celebration of life. Experience that roast leg of lamb and potatoes served for Sunday lunch with all your senses: feel the texture on your tongue, savour the aroma and taste.

After lunch washing up is no longer a chore but another rich experience. Take note of the water’s temperature, the feeling of the soap between your fingers, the sound the dishes make as you stack them in the drying rack.

These are the some of the ways you can become more “mindful”. If you focus on the here and now, you can handle stress better, says Dr Annelie van Breda, a psychologist based in Durbanville, Cape Town.

“Then you focus on the moment you’re more creative and able to come up with innovative solutions. Mindfulness is about taking a moment to experience life afresh in its entirety, without prejudice and with acceptance and confidence,” she explains.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is offered in more than 30 countries around the world, including South Africa. It teaches you to live mindfully – a technique that’s gaining ground to counter our hectic lifestyle where our attention is focused on technological devices such as smartphones and iPads making us less aware.

Mindfulness has become a buzzword worldwide. Time magazine recently devoted a cover story to The Mindful Revolution .You can even download apps such as Headspace on your smartphone to help you with mindfulness practices. South Africa’s Institute for Mindfulness (IMISA) will host an international conference in Stellenbosch in September where experts will discuss research in this field.

“Mindfulness can be seen as a skill you can develop through training and practice,” IMISA director Dr Simon Whitesman says. “The more we pay attention to our present experience, the more mindful we become.”

But mindfulness involves more than merely focusing on what you’re doing. “A sniper could also be focused on a target but t11ats’ not mindfulness because there’s no compassion for the self or for others.” Dr Whitesman says. He also teaches part-time in the faculty of medicine and health sciences at Stellenbosch University where an academic course in mindfulness is offered to professional health workers such as medical doctors. Psychologists and physiotherapists.

“Mindfulness can help with people’s wellbeing in a modern society. If doctors and lecturers are themselves healthier they can be better role models for students,” says Professor Marietjie de Villiers, deputy dean of education in the same faculty.

“The techniques are fairly straightforward and cost nothing to apply every day,” she adds. Meditation and yoga play an important role in a mindful lifestyle, but you can also do exercises that take only a few minutes. Compiled by experts, research shows these exercises can improve your wellbeing.

Mindfulness Exercises

  • Focus on your breathing for one minute. Breathe in deeply and wait six counts before breathing out. Try to focus on how your chest is moving up and down, says Alfred James, a British mindfulness coach and founder of the blog Feel the sensation of breathing in your nostrils, your shoulders, your ribcage and stomach. It helps to bring your thoughts from the past and future to the here and now, Cape Town psychologist and yoga instructor Linda Kantor says.
  • Focus your attention on how the air feels on your skin for 10 to 60 seconds, suggests American psychologist Dr Alice Boyes, who also writes for Psychology Today.
  • Instead of checking your Facebook page when you have a few minutes to spare give your brain a break. Look out the window at leaves falling off trees or ships on the sea. Do this for five minutes while being mindful of what’s going on around you.
  • “Scan” your body from top to toe for a few minutes, first for any sensation of discomfort or tension then for a feeling of calm and comfort. 1his helps you escape the thoughts buzzing through your mind and ground your attention, Kantor says.
  • Select a natural organism in your environment and focus on it for one minute. It could be a flower, insect or pet. Let any other thoughts go and focus only on what’s in front of you.
  • Choose a piece of music you’ve never heard before. Lose yow-self in the sound and the musical journey without making a judgment. Simply enjoy it.

The present is the only moment where we really live and are effective

Why the Exercises Work

They help you to manage your emotions better and strengthen parts of the brain that help you to be more observant, Kantor says.

The various exercises represent different doors to the here and now. Dr Whitesman calls this the “Oval Office”, a reference to the American president’s office, because “it has a lot of doors leading into it”. “There are many doorways into the present moment, which is the only moment in which we really live and where we’re effective.”

People who are depressed seem to think about the past and those who are anxious tend to worry about the future, says Rakhi Beekrum, a psychologist at Ethekwini Hospital & Heart Centre in Durban.

“Dwelling on the past won’t change what’s happened and worrying about the future isn’t constructive because the things we worry about may never happen, “she says.

Practical Tips for Living More Mindfully

  • Don’t take your cellphone to bed with you. Rather set an ordinary alarm clock for waking up. Check your phone only once you’re fully awake.
  • Wear a watch because then you won’t be distracted by emails and SMSes when you check the time on your phone.
  • Choose something you do nearly every day at the same time and decide to do it mind­ fully, for instance getting up in the morning. Experience the feeling of the floor beneath your feet and the sounds you hear arow1d the room.
  • Think of something that happens a few times daily, such as opening a door. The moment you touch the door handle, give yourself the time to experience how it feels.
  • Decide on something you do as part of your routine, such as washing dishes, and do it mindfully rather than automatically. When catching a bus, put away your cellphone and focus on the people around you and the passing scenery.
  • Take notice of things during the day that usually pass you by, such as the walls of your office. Touch your clothes, listen to the sound of yow- car engine. Smell the flowers in the foyer of your office building.
  • Even a beautiful sunset can be lost on you because you’re unobservant. Or you may notice the setting sun but be thinking about who you wish were there with you, what time it is or all the shopping you have to do. Rather enjoy the moment.

Benefits of Mindfulness?

  • They vary from improved relationships and increased emotional intelligence to being really present while your child is growing up, James says.
  • Greater self-awareness and you’re more likely to be kinder to yourself, Kantor says.
  • During stressful time’s people are more inclined to live on autopilot and be negligent. Mindfulness helps them to focus.
  • You become more relaxed and you’re less reactive and more creative with finding solutions, Dr Van Breda says.
  • People who binge-eat don’t notice what they consume, Dr Van Breda says. If they eat mindfully, instead of stuffing food into their mouths the connection between body and soul is re-established and they’re able to exercise better control over their eating habits. They can then ask, ”Am I hungry or am I looking for something else?”