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Emma Sue Prince



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Musings on mindfulness


As we hurtle into the annual December dance of Christmas preparations and winding down yet another year, it’s easy to feel more overwhelmed than ever by demands on our time. We may well be juggling these demands with the additional stress of money worries and where 2013 might lead us next. We are all having to get used to living with increasing amounts of uncertainty.

To cope with this, we will, inevitably, tend to slip into our default mode of focusing on things that are not actually happening right now and, even more likely, of imagining things that may never actually occur.  The benefits of living in the moment are extolled by many philosophical and religious traditions, but until now there has been scant scientific evidence to support this. This is starting to change and there is now a growing “mindfulness trend”. What is mindfulness? Quite simply, it means being completely in touch with and aware of the present moment. A recent Harvard study found that close to 50% of us spend most of our time thinking about anything but what we are actually doing now, in the present moment. The team who conducted the study conclude that reminiscing, thinking ahead or daydreaming tends to make people more miserable, even when they are thinking about something pleasant.  There has been considerable research into mindfulness including assessments using control groups.  There is now vast scientific proof of its efficacy. MRI scans of the grey matter of the brain’s hippocampus, the area of the brain associated with learning, memory, compassion, introspection and self-awareness, have been shown to increase in those who practice mindfulness. Conversely, the grey matter of the Amygdala, which is known to play an important part in stress and anxiety, has been shown to decrease. Cutting edge companies such as Apple and Google are testimony to the effectiveness of mindfulness at work. Mindfulness can help people to live superlative lives. In the workplace it helps them to build teamwork, enhance creativity & communication and resolve conflict. It’s also been proven to enhance creativity, emotional resilience, clarity of thought and co-operation while reducing stress, feelings of powerlessness, fatigue and somatic illness.

So, if it’s so good for you, how do we do it and how might you begin your December by practicing more mindfulness? I’ve recently discovered the great pleasure of simple winter walks which are really helping me focus more on the present moment. It’s enhanced my ability to “notice” things more, whether that’s the way light reflects off the trees or different types of architecture in my local neighbourhood. Paying attention on purpose like this is a key element of practicing mindfulness.

Here are a few other things I am going to try out in December:

  • Focusing on what I’m doing by letting go of thoughts running through my mind, breathing deeply, listening and using all my senses to savour and enjoy the present moment. I’ll try this when I’m singing, when I’m cooking or cleaning, when I’m working. I read somewhere that we are always happy right now in the present. If you think about that for a minute, it makes sense. Life unfolds in the present. But so often, we let the present slip away, allowing time to rush past unobserved and unseized.
  • Smiling when I wake up! By doing this I can set the tone of awareness and appreciation of the next 24 hours. Hey – there’s scientific proof that our facial expressions influence how we feel far more than we know.
  • Performing like no one is watching. I’ve got a few gospel concerts coming up over the festive period – yes, even a few solos! One thing I’ve learned through experience is that thinking too hard about how you’re going to perform actually makes the performance worse! So it’s far more important to get out of my head, focus less on the self and to pay attention to what is happening in the room, less on mental chatter and more as myself being part of a greater whole – a wonderful choir.
  • Breathing – this has incredible benefits: Mindfulness innoculates you from potentially negative, reactive impulses. We are all prone to being very reactive, given the constant external stimuli bombarding us each day. Breathing, as in deep breathing, actually decreases involvement of the ego. Meaning self-esteem (driven by ego) is less likely to be linked to events and it’s easier to accept things at face value. Mindfulness boosts your awareness of how you interpret and react to what’s happening in your mind. It increases the gap between emotional impulse and action, allowing you to do what Buddhists call recognizing the spark before the flame. Focusing on the present reboots your mind so you can respond thoughtfully rather than automatically.

There are, no doubt, many more ways to practice mindfulness but I am, at the moment anyway, a beginner.

The Advantage, a new book focusing on how we find, build and develop our inner resources to cope better in our changing world will be published by Pearson in March.

Unimenta exists to help trainers and teachers develop these skills in their learners – membership is free. Visit

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Emma Sue Prince


Read more from Emma Sue Prince

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