When you feel trapped by such troubled and frantic times as these, it can seem impossible to escape. And yet it is possible to rediscover peace and contentment once again.
Professor Mark Williams and I know this to be true because we - and our colleagues - have been studying anxiety, stress and depression for over thirty years at Oxford University and other institutions around the world. This work has discovered the secret to happiness and how you can successfully tackle anxiety, stress, exhaustion and even full-blown depression. It's the kind of happiness and peace that get into your bones and promotes a deep-seated authentic love of life, seeping into everything you do and helping you to cope more skilfully with the worst that life throws at you.
It's a secret that was well understood in the ancient world and is kept alive in some cultures even today. But many of us in the Western world have largely forgotten how to live a good and joyful existence. And it's often even worse than this. We try so hard to be happy that we end up missing the most important parts of our lives and destroying the very peace that we were seeking.
Our new book ‘Mindfulness: An Eight Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World' will help you understand where true happiness, peace and contentment can be found - and how you can rediscover them for yourself. It will teach you how to free yourself progressively from anxiety, stress, unhappiness and exhaustion. We're not promising eternal bliss; everyone experiences periods of pain and suffering and it's naive and dangerous to pretend otherwise. And yet, it is possible to taste an alternative to the relentless struggle that pervades much of our daily lives.
Mindfulness offers a series of simple meditations focused around mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) which grew out of the inspiring work of Jon Kabat-Zinn at the UMass Medical Center in America. The MBCT programme was originally developed by Professor Mark Williams (co-author of the book), John Teasdale at Cambridge and Zindel Segal of the University of Toronto. It was designed to help people who had suffered repeated bouts of serious depression to overcome their illness. Clinical trials show that it works. It's been clinically proven to halve the risk of depression in those who have suffered the most debilitating forms of the illness. It's at least as effective as antidepressants, and with none of their downsides. In fact, it is so effective that it's now one of the preferred treatments recommended by the UK's National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. American doctors and HMOs are increasingly recommending it as one of their preferred treatments too.
The MBCT technique revolves around a form of meditation that was little known in the West until recently. Mindfulness meditation is so beautifully simple that it can be used by the rest of us to reveal our innate joie de vivre. Not only is this worthwhile in itself, but it can also prevent normal feelings of anxiety, stress and sadness from spiralling downwards into prolonged periods of unhappiness and exhaustion - or even serious clinical depression.
A typical meditation consists of focusing your full attention on your breath as it flows in and out of your body. Focusing on each breath in this way allows you to observe your thoughts as they arise in your mind and, little by little, to let go of struggling with them. You come to realise that thoughts come and go of their own accord; that you are not your thoughts. You can watch as they appear in your mind, seemingly from thin air, and watch again as they disappear, like a soap bubble bursting. You come to the profound understanding that thoughts and feelings (including negative ones) are transient. They come and they go, and ultimately, you have a choice about whether to act on them or not.
Mindfulness is about observation without criticism; being compassionate with yourself. When unhappiness or stress hover overhead, rather than taking it all personally, you learn to treat them as if they were black clouds in the sky, and to observe them with friendly curiosity as they drift past. In essence, mindfulness allows you to catch negative thought patterns before they tip you into a downward spiral. It begins the process of putting you back in control of your life again.
Over time, mindfulness brings about long-term changes in mood and levels of happiness and wellbeing. Scientific studies have shown that mindfulness not only prevents depression, but that it also positively affects the brain patterns underlying day-to-day anxiety, stress, depression and irritability so that when they arise, they dissolve away again more easily. Other studies have shown that regular meditators see their doctors less often and spend fewer days in hospital. Memory improves, creativity increases, and reaction times become faster.
Despite these proven benefits, however, many people are still a little wary when they hear the word ‘meditation'. So before we proceed, it might be helpful to dispel some myths:
• Meditation is not a religion. Mindfulness is simply a method of mental training. Many people who practise meditation are themselves religious, but then again, many atheists and agnostics are keen meditators too.
• You don't have to sit cross-legged on the floor (like the pictures you may have seen in magazines or on TV) but you can if you want to. Most people who come to our classes sit on chairs to meditate, but you can also practise bringing mindful awareness to whatever you are doing, on buses, trains or while walking to work. You can meditate more or less anywhere.
• Mindfulness practice does not take a lot of time, although some patience and persistence are required. Many people soon find that meditation liberates them from the pressures of time, so they have more of it to spend on other things.
• Meditation is not complicated. Nor is it about ‘success' or ‘failure'. Even when meditation feels difficult, you'll have learned something valuable about the workings of the mind and thus have benefited psychologically.
• It will not deaden your mind or prevent you from striving towards important career or lifestyle goals; nor will it trick you into falsely adopting a Pollyanna attitude to life. Meditation is not about accepting the unacceptable. It is about seeing the world with greater clarity so that you can take wiser and more considered action to change those things which need to be changed. Meditation helps cultivate a deep and compassionate awareness that allows you to assess your goals and find the optimum path towards realising your deepest values.
Finding peace in a frantic world
If you are reading this article, the chances are you've repeatedly asked yourself why the peace and happiness you yearn for so often slip through your fingers. Why is so much of life defined by frantic busyness, anxiety, stress and exhaustion? These are questions that puzzled us for many years too, and we think that science has finally found the answers. And, ironically, the principles underlying these answers were known to the ancient world: they are eternal truths.
Our moods naturally wax and wane. It's the way we're meant to be. But certain patterns of thinking can turn a short-term dip in vitality or emotional wellbeing into longer periods of anxiety, stress, unhappiness and exhaustion. A brief moment of sadness, anger or anxiety can end up tipping you into a ‘bad mood' that colours a whole day or far, far longer. Recent scientific discoveries have shown how these normal emotional fluxes can lead to long-term unhappiness, acute anxiety and even depression. But more importantly, these discoveries have also revealed the path to becoming a happier and more ‘centred' person, by showing that:
• when you start to feel a little sad, anxious, or irritable it's not the mood that does the damage but how you react to it
• the effort of trying to free yourself from a bad mood or bout of unhappiness - of working out why you're unhappy and what you can do about it - often makes things worse. It's like being trapped in quicksand - the more you struggle to be free, the deeper you sink.
As soon as you understand how the mind works, it becomes obvious why we all suffer from bouts of unhappiness, stress and irritability from time to time.
When you begin to feel a little unhappy, it's natural to try and think your way out of the problem of being unhappy. You try to establish what is making you unhappy and then find a solution. In the process, you can easily dredge up past regrets and conjure up future worries. This further lowers your mood. It doesn't take long before you start to feel bad for failing to discover a way of cheering yourself up. The ‘inner critic', which lives inside us all, begins to whisper that it's your fault, that you should try harder, whatever the cost. You soon start to feel separated from the deepest and wisest parts of yourself. You get lost in a seemingly endless cycle of recrimination and self-judgment; finding yourself at fault for not meeting your ideals, for not being the person you wish you could be.
We get drawn into this emotional quicksand because our state of mind is intimately connected with memory. The mind is constantly trawling through memories to find those that echo our current emotional state. For example, if you feel threatened, the mind instantly digs up memories of when you felt endangered in the past, so that you can spot similarities and find a way of escaping. It happens in an instant, before you're even aware of it. It's a basic survival skill honed by millions of years of evolution. It's incredibly powerful and almost impossible to stop.
The same is true with unhappiness, anxiety and stress. It is normal to feel a little unhappy from time to time, but sometimes a few sad thoughts can end up triggering a cascade of unhappy memories, negative emotions and harsh judgments. Before long, hours or even days can be coloured by negative self-critical thoughts such as, What's wrong with me? My life is a mess. What will happen when they discover how useless I really am?
Such self-attacking thoughts are incredibly powerful, and once they gather momentum they are almost impossible to stop. One thought or feeling triggers the next, and then the next . . . Soon, the original thought - no matter how fleeting - has gathered up a raft of similar sadnesses, anxieties and fears and you've become enmeshed in your own sorrow.
In a sense, there is nothing surprising about this. Context has a huge effect on our memory. A few years ago, psychologists discovered that if deep-sea divers memorised a list of words on a beach, they tended to forget them when they were under water, but were able to remember them again when they were back on dry land. It worked the other way round too. Words memorised under water were more easily forgotten on the beach. The sea and the beach were powerful contexts for memory.
You can see the same process working in your own mind too. Have you ever revisited a favourite childhood holiday destination? Before the visit you probably had only hazy memories of it. But once you got there - walking down the streets, taking in the sights, sounds and smells - the memories came flooding back. You may have felt excited, wistful or perhaps even a little bit in love. Returning to that context encouraged your mind to recall a host of related memories. But it's not just places that trigger memories. The world is full of such triggers. Has a song ever sparked a cascade of emotionally charged memories? Or the smell of flowers or freshly baked bread?
Similarly, our mood can act as an internal context every bit as powerful as a visit to an old holiday destination or the sound of a favourite tune. A flicker of sadness, frustration or anxiety can bring back unsettling memories, whether you want them or not. Soon you can be lost in gloomy thoughts and negative emotions. And often you don't know where they came from - they just appeared, seemingly from thin air. You can become bad tempered, irritable or sad without really knowing why. You're left wondering, Why am I in a bad mood? Or, Why do I feel so sad and tired today?
You can't stop the triggering of unhappy memories, self-critical thoughts and judgmental ways of thinking - but you can stop what happens next. You can stop the spiral from feeding off itself and triggering the next cycle of negative thoughts. You can stop the cascade of destructive emotions that can end up making you unhappy, anxious, stressed, irritable or exhausted.
Mindfulness meditation teaches you to recognise memories and damaging thoughts as they arise. It reminds you that they are memories. They are like propaganda, they are not real. They are not you. You can learn to observe negative thoughts as they arise, let them stay a while and then simply watch them evaporate before your eyes. And when this occurs, an extraordinary thing can happen: a profound sense of happiness and peace fills the void.
Mindfulness meditation does this by harnessing an alternative way that our minds can relate to the world. Most of us know only the analytical side of the mind; the process of thinking, judging, planning, and trawling through past memories while searching for solutions. But the mind is also aware. We do not just think about things, we are also aware that we are thinking. And we don't need language to stand as an intermediary between us and the world; we can also experience it directly through our senses. We are capable of directly sensing things like the sounds of birds, the scent of beautiful flowers and the sight of a loved one's smile. And we know with the heart as well as the head. Thinking is not all there is to conscious experience. The mind is bigger and more encompassing than thought alone.
Meditation creates greater mental clarity; seeing things with pure open-hearted awareness. It's a place - a vantage point - from which we can witness our own thoughts and feelings as they arise. It takes us off the hair-trigger that compels us to react to things as soon as they happen. Our inner self - the part that is innately happy and at peace - is no longer drowned out by the noise of the mind crunching through problems.
Mindfulness meditation encourages us to become more patient and compassionate with ourselves and to cultivate open-mindedness and gentle persistence. These qualities help free us from the gravitational pull of anxiety, stress and unhappiness by reminding us what science has shown: that it's OK to stop treating sadness and other difficulties as problems that need to be solved. We shouldn't feel bad about ‘failing' to fix them. In fact, that's often the wisest course of action because our habitual ways of solving such difficulties often make them worse.
Mindfulness does not negate the brain's natural desire to solve problems. It simply gives us the time and space to choose the best ways of solving them. Some problems are best dealt with emotionally - we select the solution that ‘feels' best. Others need to be slogged through logically. Many are best dealt with intuitively, creatively. Some are best left alone for now.
Mindfulness: An Eight Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World' by Mark Williams and Danny Penman is published by Rodale.
For further information you can visit the Frantic World website.