Summary: How quality of life and health could be improved by meditation; about the benefits that are attributed to mindfulness and the kickoff of a personal experiment.

“It Is Always Now ” – What is the deal with mindfulness?

Author: Eveline Stolk
Reading time:
 6 minutes

“Wherever you go, there you are”. If this brings you out in a rash already, I can’t blame you. Aphorisms like this are everywhere, flooding our time lines and news feeds. Life quotes, providing us with (unwanted) advice or attempting to inspire.

This quote I did not read on social media. It is the title of a book. A bestseller, written by a man who is known for bringing the concept of mindfulness from the East to the West in recent time. It was Jon Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist from America, but also a student of Buddhist teachers. In 1979 he decided to combine the Eastern disciplines, he already practiced for many years, with Western science. He initiated an 8-week course, using his power rituals – the ancient practices of yoga and meditation – in order to improve the quality of life and health.

You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.

– Kabat-Zinn

So far so good. And over the past decades, mindfulness has gained widespread popularity. Amongst others, to pursue more peace and quiet in life. Nowadays, our stress levels are sky rocketing compared to earlier times. Stress is called the “health epidemic of the 21st century” by the World Health Organization. It is a common problem faced by our society as a whole, caused by a variety of factors.
Personally, I frequently experience high stress levels too, especially when it comes to my job. Therefore, my employer gave me the opportunity to participate in a mindfulness training. It is an 8-week program with a fixed protocol, based on the work of Kabat-Zinn.

What are we talking about anyway? Let us take it from the ‘master’ himself:  “Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally,” Kabat-Zinn says. Being right here, right now. As simple as that. And as difficult.

It is not aiming for an empty mind. Although we could use some breaks from our constant stream of thoughts, mindfulness is not becoming ‘blank’. Nor is its purpose pure relaxation. Yes, we can experience peace and quiet by meditating, it is not a goal in itself. “Mindfulness is simply being aware of what is happening right now, without wishing it was different.”

Sounds wooly, doesn’t it? For those who are skeptical (like myself), there is actual evidence on the effectiveness of mindfulness. We would not be down-to-earth Dutchies if we would take something at face value without further substantiation. So let me be scientific, very briefly. MRI scans of the brain show that, after an 8-week course of mindfulness practice, the “fight or flight” center (i.e. amygdala) appears to shrink. This part of the brain is involved in the body’s response to stress, generating fear and anxiety. As a result of frequent meditation, the amygdala decreases in volume. To put it differently: mindfulness changes our grey matter, in a good way!

And there’s more. I am surprised by the endless list of benefits to emotional and physical wellbeing I find on the internet. Research shows that eating mindfully results in people eating 20% less calories. It appears to improve our working memory and focus. People who practice mindfulness are 5 (!) times more likely to act compassionately towards others. I mean: what is not to like?

Back to my training. Am I a complete newbie when it comes to meditation? No. Do I consider myself a beginner? Yes. I had an introduction to mindfulness a few years ago, in a different setting. However, I never managed to make it part of my daily routine. Even though the most simple exercises only last three minutes, I just didn’t do it.

This time, I am truly motivated. So here we go. Practically, it involves weekly meetings (2,5 hours each) and daily homework (40 to 60 minutes). On a more personal level, it requires discipline and an open mind. With respect to discipline: you need to practice. It is like learning how to play the piano. You can read an instruction book and have a brilliant teacher, but there is only one thing that really does the trick: play every day. Regarding the open mind: there are many prejudices when it comes to mindfulness. And people come up with numerous excuses. To name a few: It is boring. This doesn’t work for me. I don’t have time. I cannot stay focused.

At the start of our first meeting, the teacher therefore asks us to see this as an experiment, for the full 8 weeks. Do not throw in the towel if you don’t like it or don’t feel any positive impact at once. About the time issue, she states: decide what you will stop doing, the coming period. Our lives are full. We cannot just add mindfulness training, there is usually no hour left in our schedules. So, make a choice.

I have to say: it all sounded really vague at that time. But our first exercise starts and so the experiment begins. Being present – how hard can it be? Because, let’s face it: it is always Now.

If you want to start practicing yourself, straight away, I recommend to download the free Headspace app. It has some nice exercises (only ten minutes a day), well suited for beginners. I will be blogging about my progress (or regress, time will tell) in the upcoming weeks and keep you updated on my personal experience. Tips and tricks will be shared – if I find any. If you recognize the “excuses” I mentioned earlier, let us know what is holding you back to try and start your own journey. Please feel free to share your thoughts and wonders in the comment section.