I’ve talked about both mindfulness and meditation quite a bit on this blog and I’ve shared how both have helped me to overcome Anxiety & Depression. But I’m definitely not an expert, and always interested in learning more, so I decided to seek advice! Julie Pearson and Maureen Taylor are the founders of the meditation website Mindful Life Journeys and have kindly agreed to share their knowledge with us.
Hello to you both. Let’s start with the basics, please can you tell us the difference between meditation & mindfulness?
(Julie) The truth is there is no universally accepted definition of either and the phrases often get confused, but there are differences.
For me Mindful is a state of being and the practice of Meditation or Mindfulness is the action to achieve this – the means to focus, retrain and transform the mind. Meditation is rooted in religion and spirituality and the practice was created for spiritual development and enlightenment.
Jon Kabat Zinn is accredited with bringing Mindfulness to the masses in the West and I believe the version we know is designed to fit in with Western lifestyle, where the aspect of spiritual development or enlightenment is not really referred to – although they can be bi-products. Jon Kabat Zinn’s widely accepted definition of Mindfulness is – “Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
In reality meditation and mindfulness can mean different things to different people and many things can affect people’s perception of what they are, such as their religious or cultural backgrounds, knowledge and experience – I think it’s ok to accept a personal definition of what it means to you.
(Maureen) I agree with Julie, but for me Mindfulness is being in the present moment, seeing, feeling, being and noticing how it effects, enriches or halts us and then releases us.
Meditation is all the above with the added opportunity to learn how to take time out from our lives, be they hectic, stressful, time limiting or doing driven. With meditation one can learn to empty the mind from that which distracts and let other opportunities, experiences and memories in to become revived, hopeful and clear.
What are the health benefits of practicing meditation?
(Julie) There are many health benefits connected with regular consistent practice but people should beware of expecting meditation to be a quick fix, it can provide short term release, but the real benefits are from regular practice.
We are all aware of the saying that the mind and body are connected and I believe this to be true. When we relax the mind the body knows it’s safe to relax and vice versa.
When we use Meditation and/or Mindfulness to relax, let go of the past, release fear of the future and just be in the moment, the mind and, by association, the body can experience transformation.
Studies have shown a positive impact on the cardiovascular system, heart, blood pressure and hypertension, reductions in stress and anxiety, increased immune function, reduction in perception of pain, increased feelings of positive emotions, addiction, sleep, focus, concentration, memory and more! (Links to these studies below)
(Maureen) All of the above and it can flood your brain with positive thoughts and enhance your mood. We use meditation to help to reboot the mind, life choices and direction. A spa day for the mind! The beauty of it is that it isn’t restricted to age, ability, disability, lifestyle, welfare, social background, religion or gender it is open to all.
I know so many people who find meditation brings them relief from their mental health difficulties. Why is this? How can meditation help relieve the symptoms of Anxiety or Depression?
(Julie) For me the practice of meditation enabled me to see that my mind saw a state of anxiety as “normal”, in a way my mind had formed a habit, an addiction to being in a heightened state of fight or flight. I had unknowingly and unconsciously built giant neural pathways, motorways in my mind, that only went one way, around in one big never ending circle! Meditation allowed me to see my thoughts for what they were and it empowered me to know I could change it, start to build junctions where I could turn off that nightmare cycle and I could choose to stop thinking in a way that no longer served me and start to build more positive, more optimistic paths. I learnt my past didn’t have to define my future, I was empowered to change my life.
(Julie & Maureen) From a company perspective we use unique mindful meditations to support positive mental health by providing tools everyday people can relate to, which help them to let go of the past, including feelings of guilt, release fear of the future and live in the moment. Our guided meditations aim to encourage feelings of love, joy, positivity, confidence and happiness to help give minds a break in a fun and engaging way and start to turn the scripts we can write ourselves everyday into potential opportunities which can serve us better.
People with mental health conditions need to be gentle with themselves during their meditation practice. Meditation doesn’t create emotions, but it can bring people in touch with what is within them. In the beginning that might be painful, until we learn to observe the emotion rather than get caught up in it. We need to practice self compassion during this time and know that it’s ok to come out of a meditation if the emotion gets too much, we can always try again when/if we feel ready.
Meditation is great for increasing resilience to stressful situations, we liken it to an elastic band. We are all born with an inbuilt resilience that bounces back, but that can get stretched to breaking point. We use meditation as a new elastic band around the first, strengthening and helping individuals spring back to their natural state of balance.
When Buddha was asked “What have you gained from meditation?” He replied, “Nothing. However, I have lost anger, anxiety, depression, insecurity, a fear of old age and death.”
I love this! This is exactly how it worked for me too, especially what you said about “motorways in the mind”. Being Mindful gave me the skills to break the Anxiety cycle in my mind.
Why do you think meditation has become such a hot topic in recent years?
(Julie & Maureen) We think it’s a combination of things. The first being a greater need.
Peoples’ aspirations have increased in so many areas including lifestyle, careers, education, exams, relationships, finance, family and health. Many people are now living lives that come with heightened stress and anxiety as standard, whether self imposed or not, all of which can knock us off balance and lead us to look for solutions.
A Western lifestyle can make us feel time poor, meditation can take up a little time but it can help us be more productive and better mentally equipped to deal with modern life journeys.
Ghandi once said “I need to set aside 1hr to meditate”. His students questioned that he had time to do it and he replied “If that’s the case then I need to set aside 2hrs.”
The second being technology. With the influence of the internet and the wonder of global communication there are new opportunities for people to share and discuss their issues, their fears and look for help, when people look for help it tends to spark development of solutions. The same technical advances have made it easier for people with the solutions to make themselves known, found and used.
People like Jon Kabat Zinn have given the West a more “palatable” version of meditation more suited to Western lifestyle and global meditation apps such as Headspace have helped make mindfulness “cool” and attracted a wider, younger audience.
The third being science and celebrity. Meditation has been around for thousands of years and practitioners have long known about the benefits, however, it is only more recently that it is becoming backed up by scientific evidence and the “mumbo jumbo”, “hippy nonsense” image is being dispelled. Many celebrities are practicing and talking about the benefits to their wellbeing which is creating interest and also helping to make meditation mainstream. Being non-intrusive, non-competitive, private, accessible and affordable helps a lot.
What equipment or environment do you need in order to successfully meditate?
(Julie & Maureen) No special equipment or clothing is necessary. All you need is you, your mind and your body. When starting out, it’s useful to have a calm, quiet space to meditate in, but it is possible to meditate while the world goes on around you, with practice.
You don’t even need to be seated while meditating, some great meditations are designed to be used whilst walking or completing a task, using the action as the focus point. But people should be aware not to meditate if being unaware of their surroundings could put them or anyone else in danger e.g. driving or operating machinery.
Having access to guided meditations is useful for all levels of experience, so access to a device to play them on and the internet is useful.
What are the most common mistakes people make when learning to meditate and how can they overcome them?
(Julie) The biggest mistake can be setting yourself unrealistic expectations, putting too much pressure to succeed and then feeling you have failed, for example: I’m supposed to clear my mind, I’m supposed to practice daily, I should be getting it by now, I’m supposed to feel calm, I have to close my eyes, I’m not supposed to feel agitated, I must be doing it wrong, I’m not meditating for long enough, I’m not using the right posture etc., etc.
The technique of meditation is very simple but it takes some time and practice. People need to practice self compassion and patience and know that it’s ok to go at their own pace and that meditation isn’t a quick fix. It’s just one tool in the box to help with life’s challenges. You can’t fail, there’re no rules, it’s your journey, your mind, your way.
Don’t believe the myths! Sometimes you won’t feel calmer, sometimes you will feel agitated and that can be part of the process to go through before you feel peace and happiness. The aim for mindfulness meditation is not to vanquish all thoughts, firstly it’s about learning to notice them and then learning just to be ok sitting with them and letting them go. There is no right or wrong length of meditation, number of times to practice or time of the day to practice. Whatever feels right is ok. There’s no right or wrong posture and you don’t have to close your eyes, feeling safe and comfortable is the main thing.
And finally, there are many types and styles of meditation and just because one meditation doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t mean meditation doesn’t work. People need to take time to find what works for them and remember that what works might change over time. It’s like having one bad relationship and then saying you will never look for another. We move on and use what we learn about what we like, don’t like and what works and doesn’t work to find a better fit for us.
(Maureen) I agree. People are prone to give up if the first time they “did” it they felt they didn’t get “there”. Expecting to run before they walk. Don’t expect to get it straight away it is a relaxation technique that reminds your body and brain that it is ok to relax and just be. We need to learn to be patient and know it is a technique to allow yourself to feel safe, to relax and let go of control. Which can be difficult.
What are your tips for getting in the habit of meditating in the longer term?
(Julie & Maureen)
- Find out what works for you – If you find something you like and enjoy you are more likely to stick with it.
- Don’t feel you have failed if you don’t meditate every day. It’s ok to dip in and out of practice as and when you feel the need, but it’s true that benefits build up with consistent, regular practice.
- Be gentle on yourself – Don’t set unrealistic expectations and set yourself up to fail – see answer to previous question.
- Commitment is important – If you have a good enough reason to meditate you will stick with it, but you have to enter into practice with open eyes and prepared to put some time and effort into it.
- Find Time – Initially try and set aside “me” time it helps to start forming a habit if it’s at the same time at regular intervals. Give yourself permission to be selfish. Book a “Meditation Meeting” in your diary. Let others know that you need to be uninterrupted to avoid being on high alert in case someone interrupts. It’s another myth that meditation takes up a lot of time. You can scan your body mindfully in one minute.
- Be social with it – Find like minded people. Some people find attending a group, going on a course or joining online groups helps to keep their interest and practice alive.
Can children meditate? Why would they need to and at what age can they start?
Yes, children can meditate and tend to “get it” very quickly. We wouldn’t recommend Children under 5 use meditation, because we believe attention spans and ability to comprehend the principles are not yet developed to that level. We advise parents with children with mental health issues or ASD check with their health professional before entering into practice.
There is growing evidence that children at primary school age have experienced benefits in increased attention, focus, concentration and resilience to stressful situations using Mindfulness techniques and Meditation.
Evidence from a poll of teachers by the NASUWT last year found that a third of teachers have worked with primary school children who suffer from depression, anxiety and panic attacks. The study found that 91 per cent of teachers knew children who had suffered from anxiety and panic attacks.
The lack of resilience in some young children needs to be taken very seriously. Not only will it affect happiness and performance at school, but we believe if not tackled early it could lead to mental health issues in later life.
Our mindful meditations have been created in partnership with the National Schools Charity Achievement for All with input from parents, children, teachers, head teachers, teaching assistants, SEN and ELSA’s. During our development phase we were told that tools were needed to help increase resilience to stressful situations, provide tools that can be used to help self regulate emotion, help children into mental states more ready for learning and encourage “can do” growth mindsets.
How can Mindful Life Journeys help?
Mindful Life Journeys can provide a unique source of Mindful Meditations and associated tools, such as the I AM cards, for adults, children and later years, used by everyday people, schools, organisations and the care sector, to help people see that what happens in their life doesn’t have to define them.
We use mindful meditations as a way for people to reconcile the past and reduce anxiety about the future, releasing and empowering them to realise their dreams, their self confidence, self belief, self worth and potential to achieve what they need in life.
We can help to keep meditation practice fun and alive with new meditations added monthly. We are a source of support when people are looking for help on their journey, whatever stage that might be. Our online communities offer a way to connect with others, to ask questions and find answers and dispel the myths.
For later years we help carers and organisations with unique activities designed to encourage happy, healthy moments and memories that help stimulate cognitive activity. There is growing evidence suggesting that meditation could help slow cognitive decline and give minds moments away from pain and discomfort, but most of all we hope it will relieve feelings of loneliness and bring family together for fun and conversation.
We commit 50% of annual profits after expenses to our Mindfulness Fund, where we work with charitable causes such as Achievement for All, a National Schools Charity and West Berkshire Homeless and more in the future.
Scientific Studies – Example Sources
- Immune Function Benefits
- Affects of Meditation on Pain
- Affects of Meditation on Inflammation
- Affects on Positive Emotions
- Meditation and Depression
- Meditation and Anxiety
- Meditation and Stress
- Meditation and the Cardiovascular System
- Meditation and Blood Pressure and Hypertension
- Meditation and Concentration
- Meditation and Addiction
- Mindfulness in Schools – See Education Section