Struggling to cope with the information overload and frantic pace of modern life? A solution may lie within the wave of mindfulness training sweeping across Europe, helping people to maintain physical and mental health.
Modern life is hectic and full of deadlines, deadlines, and more deadlines. You’re worried about getting everything done and you’re worried about your future. And on top of it all, that smartphone in your pocket keeps dinging and pinging, tempting you to answer emails, return texts or check out your friends’ latest status updates. With so many things fighting for your attention, how can you cut through the cacophony in order to focus on the tasks at hand?
The answer might be in learning to live your life more ‘mindfully’ – a technique that increasing numbers of medical professionals, psychologists and mindfulness enthusiasts tout as a vital tool for maintaining physical and mental health. And the concept has found its way to university campuses across Europe.
At Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) in the Netherlands, Anniek Mol is an assistant for the student community TINT and is currently following a second mindfulness course offered by this group. She says that simple changes, like giving daily chores her undivided attention, can positively influence the rest of her day:
“I try to find one thing every day that I do with a mindful mindset. The last few months it has been making my bed every morning with full focus. I try not to think about anything else. I focus on how the fabrics feel, how the down covers move. I find that making the bed that way is a great way to start the day and the view of a fresh made bed is soothing.”
Brains not equipped for information overload
So what exactly does it mean to be ‘mindful’? In its simplest sense, mindfulness means to narrow your focus to your current activity without allowing other distractions to pull you away from the moment.
Though it may sound like an easy thing to do, modern life makes the practice challenging. Jerome Wehrens is the owner of B-Mind Eindhoven, a local mindfulness training centre, and explains that he often sees people in his practice who are struggling with information overload.
“We have so much information that needs to be processed and our brains just aren’t equipped for that. Think about a typical farmer in the Middle Ages. In his entire life, he was probably only confronted with the same amount of new information that we try to process in a single month. It’s just too much for us,” Wehrens explains.
‘Coming home’ to yourself
Hans d’Achard, a part-time lecturer in the Industrial Design Department, experienced this overload in his own life a few years ago: “I had a very, very rough time. I was physically and emotionally shook up and everything had gone wrong – socially, professionally, everything. I said, ‘I need a break’. I thought, I can go sit on a beach somewhere or I can go learn something and change my life.”
After attending a mindfulness retreat in France, d’Achard says his life was profoundly transformed. “We’re so filled with stuff that comes from the outside and it’s so noisy and crowded with stuff that comes from others, that we can’t observe our own thoughts, feelings and emotions anymore. I learned to stop and come home to myself.”
“My life is all about hurrying and worrying”
Upon his return, d’Achard felt compelled to share his new-found knowledge with others. Now, he and life coach Elizabeth Fricker offer mindfulness training to students and young professionals through TINT. Fricker says embracing mindfulness techniques can be particularly useful for students:
“One student’s comment really summed it up for me. He said, ‘My life is all about hurrying and worrying.’ They have all of these deadlines and they worry about whether they’re managing their lives properly. Mindfulness training can help them learn to stop hurrying through life.”
Though ‘mindfulness’ has perhaps become an overused buzzword, the idea itself is rooted in traditions that have existed for thousands of years. In 1st century Greece, philosopher Philo of Alexandria outlined ‘spiritual exercises’ involving attention and concentration. By the 3rd century, other Greek philosophers were discussing meditative practices. Virtually every world religion incorporates ideas based on meditating and living mindfully – though, of course, often called by a different name.
Today’s mindfulness techniques are most directly connected to Eastern philosophies, particularly Buddhism, though modern practitioners tend to steer clear of any religious overtones.
The modern mindfulness movement
The pioneer of the mindfulness movement is American Jon Kabat-Zinn, an MIT-trained scientist who founded the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979. Kabat-Zinn’s personal experiences as a student of Buddhist teachers and his practice of yoga spurred him to integrate these teachings with those of science.
According to Kabat-Zinn’s program, called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction or MBSR, people can learn to better cope with stress, anxiety, pain, and illness. Currently, there are 1,000 certified MBSR instructors practicing in over 30 countries.
The basic tenets of Kabat-Zinn’s program (and most mindfulness-based training courses) are as follows:
- Mindfulness meditation: sit quietly and focus on your natural breathing. This can include using a ‘mantra’ – a word repeated silently. Allow your thoughts to come and go without judgement.
- Body sensations: notice what’s happening with your body – itches, tingles, aches – and let them pass. Take notice of each part of your body from head to toe.
- Senses: notice sights, sound, smells, tastes, and touches without judgement. Let them pass.
- Emotions: notice your emotions and allow them to wash over you. Name these emotions for what they are, for instance: joy, sadness, frustration. Accept your emotions and allow them to pass.
- Urge surfing: coping with cravings for addictive substances or behaviours. Notice how you feel when a craving enters your consciousness. Accept your urges and embrace the certain knowledge that the craving will eventually subside.
Coping with the 21st century
More and more organisations are recognising the value of mindfulness training. Aafje De kuyper, head of a new professional development unit in TU/e’s personnel department, thinks teaching employees to live more mindfully could help them find a better work-life balance.
“Within all kinds of work environments, employees experience more pressure and more stress. Training our staff in mindfulness techniques would embed a culture of wellbeing in the work environment, and reduce a later burden,” De kuyper says. The department will soon offer the program ‘Mindful in your Work & Life’ to all personnel, support and scientific staff.
Not only are our work and personal lives busier than ever in this ‘always on’, hyper-connected world, but the demands of modern life also often force us outside our comfort zone. For instance, many young professionals relocate to other countries to pursue their career goals.
Dimitrios Ikonomou was one such young professional who sought out mindfulness training during a year living and working in Eindhoven. He says learning to live his daily life more mindfully helped him deal with the challenges of living abroad.
Stopping, listening – and breathing
“Moving is high stress. You don’t know how to work the money. You don’t know how to speak the language. You can’t even find the grocery store. Mindfulness training forces you to stop and listen to yourself and it helps you understand why you’re upset or not focused,” Ikonomou says.
Not ready to jump into an entire mindfulness training course? Elizabeth Fricker says there are some simple things you can do to help deal with stress and find a better balance in your daily life:
“Choose one thing a day to do mindfully. It can be eating your lunch with your full attention or brushing your teeth. Just make sure to give your full attention to the process. Also, try to take 10 minutes a day to just sit and do nothing and breathe. Breathing is really the bottom line. When you breathe, you connect to your body and mind.”
Adapted from article by Angela Daley in TU/e’s Cursor magazine