I was standing at my kitchen sink, locked in battle with a determined frying pan unwilling to part with the remnants of the evening’s scorched rice paella. It was 9pm and I was exhausted, having been up since 5:30am, then worked a full day, only to face “witching hour” with my 4-year-old and 9-month-old sons while my husband was out at an evening work event.
I noticed that my shoulders were tense, my jaw was tight, and my mind was catastrophising thoughts of pending grant applications and unmet work deadlines. All I wanted was a hot bath and to fall into bed. But I still had a crusty layer of stubborn leftovers to face.
Given that I’m a health journalist who interviews mindfulness scientists and writes about how it can enhance your immune system, help you cope with chronic illness, and even change your brain structure to help with anxiety, focus, and attention – and given that I featured this science in both my film and book, I’d love to tell you that mindfulness was the tool I reached for as I faced the disagreeable saucepan in hand-to-handle combat.
But I didn’t. Well, not exactly. And I’ll explain what I mean shortly. But first, let me clear up some common misconceptions about mindfulness.
When I traveled to the US to interview Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is the man credited with sparking the mindfulness blaze sweeping the western world at the moment, he explained that mindfulness is “the awareness that arises by paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” While many people think that this means cultivating a zen-like ability to be blissfully absorbed in the present moment, all of the time, this is not actually what Kabat-Zinn was talking about. “It's not about getting to some special state – the mindful state – where the world will fall away and you'll just feel like, you know, everything is beautiful and you have no problems. Mindfulness is not a state at all. It's a way of being,” he told me. “Really, it's a way of being in a wise relationship and a compassionate relationship to whatever is arising that's most important moment by moment by moment.” (You can see my interview with him at the end of the post.)
So, while the uninitiated tend to think of mindfulness as an agonising exercise involving sitting crossed legged with your eyes closed and trying to ignore the crazy, busy, noisy world around you and the even crazier, busier, noisier world inside your head, those who have looked into it a little more closely will tell you that there are actually two aspects to mindfulness – the formal practice of meditation (where you intentionally focus on something such as your the breath), and the informal practice in your daily life (what researchers call “everyday mindfulness”).
This everyday mindfulness can take many different forms. For example, “mindful listening” can help you to stay present in a conversation with another person and really hear what they are saying. “Mindful eating” involves paying full attention to the smells, textures, flavours and temperatures of your food, or to the sensations in your body associated with hunger and fullness, without judging them. Taking a “mindful moment”, or what the Yale Centre for Emotional Intelligence calls a “meta-moment,” before you respond to a person allows you to use the brief space in time between when something happens and when you react, allowing you to control your emotions, before they control you.
Most of the scientific research to date focusses on exploring the benefits of formal mindfulness meditation, and I want to highlight that the programs being shown to have the most health benefits are quite intensive. The research shows that meditating is like going to the gym. The more often you go, the stronger, fitter and younger your brain. It’s also important to note that, like going to the gym, it’s not enough to simply think about meditating, or talk about meditating, or only meditate for few weeks after making New Year’s resolution. In order to gain the most benefits, you have show up and practice on a regular basis.
Having said that, “everyday mindfulness” can have benefits as well. In 2014 researchers at Florida State University instructed college students to wash the dishes mindfully by paying attention to the task and their own thoughts and feelings, without getting caught up in ruminating on the past or worrying about the future. Compared with students who washed dishes as they normally would, the mindful dishwashers reported greater feelings of inspiration and decreased feelings of nervousness. Everyday mindfulness may not have the exact same stress centre, amygdala-shrinking effects in your brain as mindfulness meditation, but it can help turn the hum drum task of washing up into something a little more useful.
With all this in mind, as I faced the black remains of the evening meal stuck to the bottom of my saucepan, I “tuned in” to the present moment. I paid attention to the stubborn grime, and noticed that I had a stiff wrist from scouring it. The tension travelled up my arm and I became aware of my neck tightness and heavy head, then I realised the intensity of my whole-body fatigue. I was bone-tired, exhausted… done. And so, keeping in mind Jon Kabat-Zinn’s advice that mindfulness is “a way of being in a wise relationship and a compassionate relationship to whatever is arising that's most important moment by moment by moment,” I knew what I had to do. Instead of spending one second longer in my epic battle with burnt rice, I raised the white flag and surrendered to the saucepan. I filled it with hot soapy water, abandoned it to soak overnight, and took myself to bed.