And breatheâ’ I hear the gong, gong, gong from my Mindfulness App as it (ironically) sends me into a complete sense of serenity. Meditation has become a new hobby of mine, yet it’s something that never interested me before. It was only a few months ago that I came to realise the true benefits of mindfulness, as achieved through meditation. It was early September and I was invited to attend a mindfulness conference little knowing that I was being shown a path to a happier, healthier me.
Psychology Today defines mindfulness as a state of active, open attention on the present. The concept also involves acknowledging and accepting’ in a non-judgemental way. Yet, although mindfulness has made its breakthrough into the mainstream, with special thanks to Time magazine’s The Mindful Revolution’ in February last year, there still seems to be a stigma attached to it. I have to admit that I was included among the sceptics. You see, we live in a time and culture where many people are unlikely to pay much attention to celibate monks, dressed in long robes, who seem to do nothing but sit quietly cross-legged all day. With the rapid evolution in science and technology, we have become true meditation-snobs brushing it off as something those hippies’ used to do in the 1960s. Fast-forward to the late 1980s, where the worlds of science and meditation collide: Jon Kabat-Zinn, known as the father of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), is a professor with a PhD in molecular biology. He is the brainchild behind the revolutionary thinking that revealed how meditation can help patients cope with the stress they experience when faced with any life-threatening illness.
Decades later, scientists continue to prove that MBSR training can have a positive impact on the workings of our brains. This is shown through brain imaging, and involves assessing the functional and structural processes of the brain through MRI scans. In times of stress, the hippocampus (an important part of the brain associated with memory and movement) shrinks. Patients who suffer from depression and anxiety tend to have a reduced hippocampus and decreased thickness of the cerebral cortex (another important brain component). Studies have shown that both the volume of the hippocampus and the thickness of the cerebral cortex increase significantly in people who practise meditation. This research has fuelled the growth of many other MBSR programmes, and so, with the help of a very intelligent, yet very humble, PhD student in neuroscience (who wishes to remain unnamed), I looked more deeply into the benefits of meditation (which is a formal practice) and mindfulness (which you can do informally or formally).
And so I came across a topic that I found deeply relevant for today: the benefits of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) for women battling eating disorders. We are often at war with our bodies: obsessing over kilojoules, evaluating low-fat and sugar-free foods, consuming or rejecting fats (not to mention the word carbohydrate’). So, what characterises an eating disorder? Women with eating disorders don’t only obsess over what they eat, or don’t eat; they tend to fixate on the business of not eating at all (or getting rid of the food if they do), placing excessive restrictions on their food intake to counteract weight gain.
These restrictions are then manifested in self-induced starvation in women with anorexia nervosa and binge-purge behaviour in women with bulimia nervosa. Anorexia is characterised by distorted body image and excessive dieting â with a pathological fear of becoming fat, according to the American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Bulimia, says DSM-5, is characterised by frequent episodes of binge eating followed by inappropriate behaviours such as self-induced vomiting to avoid weight gain. Although anorexia and bulimia are two different illnesses, they both involve one common denominator addictive behaviour.
In her talk at the Mindfulness Matters Conference that I attended last September, dietician Dr Julie Deane-Williams described the nature of this war as the obsessive-compulsive behaviour in which the person’s choice of substance for abuse is food, or the lack of it. Eating disorders are process addictions, where the person fails to separate what is concrete from what is symbolic a symptom that can also be connected to body dysmorphia. While the results of such disorders are physical, the cause is, more often than not, one of spiritual and emotional emptiness. And the cost of the war?
Of all psychiatric illnesses, anorexia and bulimia have the highest risk of mortality. Among adolescents with eating disorders, 7.8 out of 100 cases end in death; among adults, 10.7. The reason behind these fatalities lies in the fact that both anorexia and bulimia are said to be among the most resistant-to-treatment’ psychiatric disorders in the world. Cue mindfulnessâ Meditation and mindfulness are not just about sitting cross-legged in a room of burning incense. Mindfulness is an invitation to recognise the spaciousness that is the mind (and meditation is the activity that helps us to do this).
Its aim is to give you a better appreciation of the present moment; to not get lost in thought, distracted or overwhelmed by emotion, but instead to be in the here-and-now and to simply observe your feelings, behaviour and experiences, without giving judgment. The results? Mindfulness practice possibly leads to reduced suffering and increased wellbeing. But we need to know how to do it. We need an exercise and a framework. Dr Jean Kristeller is a professor of psychology at Indiana State University in the US, and is the pioneer behind a programme called Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training (or MB-EAT).
Its objective is to teach individuals about understanding food and how the mind and the body work together. One exercise involves eating a raisin very slowly, paying close attention to every aspect of it; from exploring its colour and shape, to the senses evoked through its smell, placing it between your lips and, finally, feeling the raisin rolling around in your mouth before gently biting into it. The aim of the exercise is to be aware of what you are eating and to focus all your attention on the act. Along with the raisin exercise, the programme incorporates a body scan, sitting and walking meditation and yoga, ending off with two sessions on relapseprevention plans.
Here, I’ve only touched on a conversation that is happening on a global scale. It is not suggested that mindfulness is a certain cure for eating disorders or for any other life-threatening condition. But it does open up a whole new way for women struggling with disordered eating to be at peace with themselves. Women who have been through mindfulness programmes like MB-EAT leave with a stronger sense of self; and many manage to turn their battles with food and weight into a healthier perspective and lifestyle. Mindfulness is therefore a topic worth talking about. All you need to do is to start by taking 10 minutes out of your day to do nothing no talking, no texting, no emailing, no chewing absolutely nothing. Focus on that, and you’re on your way to mastering mindfulness.