Of late, you would’ve noticed the word mindfulness appearing frequently in reading materials.
It is the latest trendy term in the world of self-improvement. A quick online check of the word reveals more than 300 million articles have been written on the subject.
Mindfulness is basically the psychological process of being aware of what is happening in an accepting, gentle and compassionate way.
You have to pay attention to the present moment, without being judgemental.
Though its roots come from various spiritual realms, you don’t have to be religious or spiritual to practise it.
In 1979, American Jon Kabat-Zinn, now a professor emeritus of medicine, recruited chronically ill patients not responding well to traditional treatments to participate in his newly-formed eight-week stress-reduction programme.
Since then, substantial research has demonstrated how mindfulness-based interventions improve mental and physical health.
The principles and practices of mindfulness have been successfully implemented in the areas of healthcare, psychotherapy, education, parenting, coaching and business.
In today’s world, everyone needs to induce themselves into a state of relaxation to keep sane in this fast-changing, less tolerant, angry society.
A decade ago, consultant psychiatrist and mindfulness-based therapist, Dr Phang Cheng Kar created the popular MindfulGym, Malaysia’s first mindfulness-based stress management programme.
He jested, “Many patients come in with the ‘semua sakit syndrome’. We send them to this programme to help them cope with life’s challenges.”
In the following years, a group of like-minded mental health professionals joined him in the continuous effort in researching and creating more mindfulness programmes for a wide spectrum of people.
Concerned over the state of mental health among Malaysians, the group officially launched the Malaysian Association for Mindfulness Practice and Research (MMPR) in late 2018.
“A third of Malaysians have some form of mental health problems such as stress, anxiety and depression, and this is worrying.
“Our group is convinced of the benefits of mindfulness and wants to spread it to promote general well-being and prevent mental health challenges in the community,” said Dr Phang, the MMPR president.
In conjunction with the launch, MMPR held a one-day programme consisting of talks and workshops to educate the public on how to improve personal well-being and interpersonal relationships through mindfulness practice.
Mindfulness can help relieve stress by reducing worries about the future and regrets about the past.
“You’re free from this at the present moment. It’s akin to a free gear,” said Dr Phang in his talk entitled Introduction to Mindfulness for Stress Reduction.
It increases the ability to cope with stress, instead of experiential avoidance, i.e. whatever we resist will persist.
When you have a coping mechanism in place, nothing becomes too overwhelming.
He said, “Also, most of us overestimate our ability to multitask and this leads to mindless mistakes.
“Neuroscience research shows that multitasking steals away time. Rapidly switching between multiple tasks that require significant attention makes us less efficient.
“So we have to PDF – prioritise, delegate and focus. Of course, this is hard in a corporate setting, but we have to try. Let go of control.”
There are many techniques you can use such as mindful breathing, visualisation, body stretching, body scanning, photography, walking, etc.
To get you started on the mindfulness journey, here is a simple breathing technique, qigong style, as suggested by Dr Phang.
It can be done anywhere, anytime. All you need is yourself and perhaps one minute, depending on your lung capacity:
• Stand up with arms hanging by your side. Make sure you have space to stretch your arms upwards.
• Slowly inhale as you bring your arms straight in front of you, then above your head. Smile as you do this.
The arm movement is not a necessity, but it makes it easier for you to focus.
• Slowly exhale through your mouth while bringing the arms back down.
A controlled exhalation helps calm the parasympathetic nervous system, which is opposite of the fight-flight-freeze response.
Again, smile as you do this.
• Practise this technique once every two to three hours and notice the difference.
Use your mobile timer to send you a two-hourly reminder.
Said Dr Phang, “More than 229 studies published in journals show that mindfulness is helpful in reducing mental health problems.
“Besides, evidence also shows skin conditions improve four times faster if one practises mindfulness.”
According to Low Mi Yen, clinical psychologist and vice president of MMPR, who spoke on Mindful Self-Compassion for Cultivating Emotional Resilience, recent studies are pointing to self-compassion as one of the most powerful resources to help us in facing crisis.
“Have you ever wondered how some people manage to bounce right back from a crisis while others go into despair?
“The practice of self-compassion motivates us to treat ourselves with kindness, forgive ourselves when needed, be authentic to ourselves and to relate wholeheartedly to others.”
Low, who is the sole Malaysian trained in mindful self-compassion from the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion in the United States, cited a 2016 study by Kristin Neff and Marissa Knox.
Their data revealed that 78% of people are more compassionate towards others than self, 6% more compassionate to self than others, and 16% are equally compassionate to self and others.
“The majority of people are compassionate individuals, although it is harder to be kind to yourself. Loving others without loving yourself is not self-kindness.
“Most people tend to treat themselves more harshly and criticise themselves.
“In life, we will encounter frustrations and hearts will be broken, but we are not alone. Suffering is shared by all.
“There is always this sense of isolation – why me? For example, in this world of Facebook and Instagram, everyone is having a wonderful life except you.
“Ask for help! Don’t suppress or avoid your thinking or feeling, and don’t dramatise or over-identify either,” she advised.
When a personal crisis struck, it was the practice of mindful self-compassion that put Low back on her feet.
It helped her embrace betrayal, hurt and imperfection in humans and strengthened her emotional resilience.
She quoted Kristen Neff: “To give ourselves compassion, we first have to recognise that we are suffering. We can’t heal what we can’t feel.”
She added: “The misconceptions about self-compassion is that it is selfish, a form of self-pity, self-indulgent, etc. This couldn’t be further than the truth.”
Low pointed out five pathways to incorporate self-compassion in daily living: physically (“soften” the body by eating healthily, exercising and sleeping), mentally (allowing your thoughts), emotionally (befriend your emotions and don’t bury or toss them aside), relationally (relate to others) and spiritually (nourish your spirit).
“Spiritually doesn’t mean the ritual of going to religious places, but how to gain peace.
“Remember, self-compassion is actually a practice of good intention, not good feeling.”
When one is emotionally healthy, one can improve his or her relationship with partners, friends and family, and be better caregivers for children, ageing parents and clients.
Self-compassion appears to be a trainable skill that has immense potential for helping people to thrive.
Given that as human beings we cannot be perfect, avoid mistakes, reach all our goals or avoid hardship in life, self-compassion is an invaluable tool for relating to suffering with a sense of kind, connected presence that makes our troubles easier to bear.
“When we learn how to develop mindfulness and self compassion practises together, it transforms into an available resource that supports us at any time we need it,” explained Low.