Mindfulness schmindfulness

A super-sceptic's look at the wellness industry's biggest trend.

The global wellness industry is estimated to be worth more than US$4.5 trillion a year. While it is incredibly hard to comprehend such a mind-blowing figure, what it equates to is a hell of a lot of people trying to flog us a hell of a lot of stuff.


The one thing we know that actually works is the marketing. While the efficacy of many of the miracle cures on offer is incredibly iffy, that doesn’t stop them being heavily promoted using pseudo-scientific claims and reassuring images of models dressed in white coats.
If you are anything like me, you are probably highly resistant to any of this stuff. My instant reaction to pretty much all wellness marketing is “well… no thanks, I’m good.” Kale? Tastes disgusting. Do I want to join a vitamin pyramid scheme? Not really. Coffee enema per chance? I don’t even like coffee going down the right way.


When I first heard about mindfulness, I dismissed it with the same casual disregard as I would any of the items from Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop catalogue. It came across as another awfully fashionable wellness trend, advocated by the same self-appointed self-help gurus and social media influencers, who were once extolling the wonders of wheatgrass.


Do an image search for ‘mindfulness’ and up pops countless pictures of perfectly posed fitness models greeting the sunrise in settings of wonderous peace and tranquillity. It all seems suspiciously shiny, more than a little smug and incredibly far removed from real life.
Normally, I wouldn’t look beyond the packaging, but I happen to be married to a psychologist who understands neuroscience and reads incredibly tedious academic papers just for fun. She was telling me this mindfulness thing was legit. I investigated further. This is what I found.


1. Mindfulness is not about ridding your mind of all thoughts, while you curl your activewear clad body into the shape of a pretzel.


This revelation may be quite reassuring for anyone with tight hips, a limited wardrobe and a normally functioning human brain, which produces many thousands of thoughts every day.


The idea of mindfulness is not to rid yourself of all thoughts, but to notice them and interact with them in a different way. Mercifully, you can do it lying down, sitting comfortably or even while you are standing in line at the supermarket checkout. Your clothing choices are completely up to you and it is quite okay to practice without taking a picture and putting it on Instagram.


2. Mindfulness is not some la-de-da thing which can only be done whilst sitting in a forest, on a mountain top or beside a babbling brook.


While all these places may be very nice to stop and take it all in, the skill of mindfulness often comes to the fore in far less peaceful situations. Mindfulness can be incredibly useful for doctors in emergency departments, correctional officers in gaols and firefighters trying to navigate their way through peak hour traffic in a 15 tonne truck. Most footy players employ a little mindfulness before kicking a penalty and most pro golfers will do the same before stroking a million dollar putt.


Mindfulness can help us focus, centre ourselves and concentrate fully on what matters most. It can allow us to better regulate emotions, act in a less reactive manner and calm down after stressful events. In just about every workplace it has some profoundly practical applications.


3. You can get a promotion from slave to manager


If you are ready to follow the advice of Bob Marley and ‘emancipate yourself from mental slavery’, mindfulness might just be the answer.
Without mindfulness it’s very easy to become a slave to thoughts and emotions. When stress appears, our amygdalas take control. Thoughts can seem urgent, important or like orders to obey. We can easily become overwhelmed trying to problem-solve situations, whilst pushing away uncomfortable emotions that we are ill-equipped to deal with.


Mindfulness allows us to take on a different role (something a little more managerial). Instead of instantly reacting, we can observe our thoughts, consider which ones are useful and employ the powers of our pre-frontal cortex, which is far better at making rational decisions. Through mindfulness we can also recognise emotions, seek to understand them and respond to them in a self-compassionate way.


4. You don’t have to join a cult or change religions.


Mindfulness has been around for thousands of years and during that time all sorts of religious and spiritual groups have indeed advocated the practise. In recent times, the favourable results of widespread scientific studies have caused countless sporting coaches, management consultants and medical professionals to jump on the bandwagon.


To practise mindfulness, you needn’t change your belief system, run away to India or hand your life savings over to a charismatic guru. All you really need to do is find a few spare minutes each day, just for you.


There are many forms of mindfulness. It can be used to aid relaxation, improve sleep, reduce stress, boost focused attention or spark creativity. Mindfulness certainly doesn’t have to be a spiritual practise, but it can be if you like.


5. It’s not as incredibly boring as it sounds


In our modern lives we have endless screens to scroll, problems to solve and urgent things that go beep. Our brains have become wired for stimulation, so the idea of stopping and doing nothing seems incredibly dull.


When we try mindfulness, we may for the first time notice how loud the fridge is, how tight our chest is or how many thoughts are flying through our heads. We may notice a voice saying “this is boring” or an inner critic shouting “you’re no good at this”. Sounds terrible, but it is worth persisting.


It can be best to approach mindfulness as though you are a curious scientist, examining a fascinating inner world. Mindfulness can allow us to observe our thoughts and emotions, rather than simply reacting to them or trying to ignore them. We can start to see what’s useful, where we are getting hooked and where we may need to apply a little self-kindness.


We quickly develop what psychologists term ‘meta-awareness’ and start to experience an internal interplay which is in fact, exceptionally interesting. Possessing this meta-awareness may be the closest you get to possessing a superpower. It can allow you to recognise which thoughts are useful and help you to let go of those unhelpful, energy-draining ones that would otherwise pull you away from your true values.


6. You can boost your brain and keep being sceptical


Mindfulness builds your brain, much like lifting weights builds muscle. Because of its neuroplasticity, a regular mindfulness exercise allows us to develop neural pathways and effectively ‘pump up’ different parts of our brains.


Research has found that practising mindfulness can increase grey matter density in areas of the brain associated with attention, emotional regulation, processing speed and perspective taking. Practicing mindfulness has also been associated with increased hippocampal volume (associated with memory and learning) and reduced amygdala volume (responsible for fight or flight and stress response)


With different exercises we can target a range of very desirable traits. Some mindfulness exercises allow us to develop greater focus when we need it and greater calm during times of stress. Other exercises can help us to replace self-criticism with self-kindness. There are also mindfulness exercises which can support us in perspective taking, managing difficult emotions and engaging far more fully with the things which bring us wonder and joy.


Scan the scientific literature and you will find an impressive range of physiological benefits. Mindfulness is particularly effective in countering stress, lowering blood pressure and when the practise is also coupled with self-compassion, it has been found to reduce stress hormones such as cortisol. Given the prevalence of stress-related conditions such as heart disease and common stress-related mental health conditions such as anxiety, this is hugely important. Mindfulness can also improve sleep, boost mental clarity and help us to become more optimistic.


For any super-sceptics like me, there is another great benefit to mindfulness – it actually encourages you to be sceptical. When you learn mindfulness, you will learn that of the many thousands of thoughts that run through your head each day, only a select proportion are wise, helpful or useful. Just like you don’t have to buy into the latest whacky wellness trend, you don’t have to buy into every thought that comes your way.


If you remain sceptical and wish to dismiss mindfulness as some wishy-washy, hippy-trippy clap-trap, it can be helpful to look beyond the wellbeing industry hype and examine the growing mountain of peer-reviewed research. If you prefer a little self-experimentation, you can also try a short guided mindfulness exercise here.