This autumn, students at the University of Sheffield have been offered the opportunity to participate in a mindfulness meditation course. Subscribers are sent one ten-minute guided meditation track every day. These are intended to be practised daily in order to help individuals to cultivate a more mindful approach to everyday life. This free, flexible mindfulness programme is a welcome opportunity for students to improve focus and general wellbeing.
The proven benefits of practising various forms of mindfulness are now widely known, and the practice has – in many ways – achieved mainstream status. Nevertheless, mindfulness is still often misunderstood and misrepresented. In particular, mindfulness is often mistakenly associated with new age mysticism, hipster health fads and alternative medicine. The practice is also sometimes described as a relaxation technique, which can lead to some confusion when people try mindfulness only to find that it is not particularly relaxing (in fact, for many people, it is quite the opposite).
The term mindfulness simply refers to the act of being mindful or aware. It’s all about tuning in to the world around you, being present in the moment and being aware of sensations and feelings. Practising mindfulness is a great way to guide your mind back to reality, especially if you’re the sort of person who ruminates on the past or worries about the future. Concentrating on physical sensations such as temperature, sound and light might seem trivial, but it’s actually a whole lot more real than worrying about the email you forgot to send or what you said in yesterday’s meeting.
Consider the last time you felt completely mindful. Often we use expressions like ‘lost in the moment’ or ‘fully present’ to describe feelings of mindfulness, and these moments tend to be intense, enjoyable and memorable – that’s why they make us forget all the other things we are supposed to be worrying about (for example, many people feel particularly mindful when they are engaging in physical exercise or doing something creative, like playing music). Meditation is a way of training the mind to think in this way, so that feelings of mindfulness can be experienced more often in day-to-day life, leading to a calmer, more focused state of mind.
In recent years, much has been made of the stress-relieving properties of mindfulness, and the proven health benefits of the practice. However, it’s important not to present mindfulness as a medicine or instant solution; it is not a magic pill which can cure the stress of modern life, nor is it as instantaneously enjoyable or entertaining as eating a slice of cake or watching a television show. To really feel the benefits, mindfulness needs to be practised and requires an investment of time and commitment. It can also sometimes be uncomfortable or difficult; given that meditation requires an awareness of sensations and feelings, this also means confronting and accepting negative feelings or sensations of discomfort.
However, if you can afford to invest some time, it may well prove to be worth it in the end. This is particularly true for students, who are required to spend a large chunk of their time concentrating on academic work. It’s great news that initiatives like this are now being offered to students, so that more people can incorporate mindfulness into their lives and explore the benefits of this practice.