Taking time out

WITH international financial meltdown and personal worries about work, bills and so much more, clearing your head has never been so important.

For a growing number of people, the practice of mindful meditation helps. At its core, mindfulness is about being aware and awake to the present.

While Hollywood stars like Goldie Hawn and Meg Ryan catch the headlines as mindful meditators, mindfulness founder Thich Nhat Hanh plans to maintain a low profile when he arrives in Ireland later this month. The 85-year-old Vietnamese monk is visiting from Plum Village, a Buddhist community he established in France in 1982. From Apr 12 to 15, he and 35 monks and nuns will lead a retreat in Killarney, preceded by a talk in the Convention Centre, Dublin, on Apr 11.

“We used to have about 30 on the retreats, now there would be over 100 each time. We expect the numbers to rise after this visit, which over 600 have booked already,” says Josephine Lynch, who teaches mindfulness in Dublin.

There are a dozen or so mindfulness groups (Sangas) in Ireland. As a group, they welcome non-Buddhists, preferring to focus on spreading the practice of mindfulness than on Buddhism.

Josephine Lynch used to fret a lot. “I often worried about the future. Mindful meditative practice really helped me calm down and be in the present - to be with what’s here and now, rather than what might be in the future.”

It’s not always easy: “When we try to focus on one aspect of the present, our mind often starts to wander: we can start thinking about what that thing reminds us of, or how it makes us feel. Mindfulness is about replacing attention on to the thing you are trying to focus on,” says Josephine.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, Happiness: Essential Mindfulness Practices, describes how to practise mindfulness in the familiar situations: breathing, sitting, walking, waking, eating, and returning home can be done in a mindful fashion. There are also social, economic and environmental aspects to mindfulness.

Thich Nhat Hanh came to prominence as a radical peace activist and teacher in Vietnam, during the war. He was a confidant of the late Martin Luther King, who nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967.

Relationships, family, community, other living creatures and the world can all come into the sphere of mindfulness. In a family, children learn to express their feelings constructively, parents work through their arguments so that calming solutions to situations can emerge.

James Newton and Kathy Cooney try to practise mindfulness every day. The couple and their two daughters, aged 13 and 11, live in Galway. James is a care worker and psychotherapist in NUI Galway, while Kathy is a homeopath in private practice. “When we moved to a new area, far from our own families and the support that provides, the need for something spiritual came to the fore.

“We grew up as Catholics, but were disillusioned. We wanted something we could bring into our lives in a more meaningful and day-to-day way. A teacher in the school told us about Plum village, and we went there in 2007. It was a really beautiful place, there were lots of families there from all over,” says Kathy.

“We try to meditate every day. We also make times for particular things: so there are times in the day when the TV, the phones, the iPods aren’t on. We have family dinners together. The children question it, of course they do, but they respect it, as they have our absolute attention.”

There is also the simple act of ringing a bell: “When the bell rings, everyone is silent”.

And the practice brings a welcome peace: “It helps when there is conflict or stress, reminding us to take a breath and be quiet. It allows us to pause and talk more calmly. “Sometimes family life can be serious - making a living, school, homework, but mindfulness helps us bring joy into the moment.”

. See www.mindfulnessireland.org

. Northridge House, an education centre on the grounds of St Luke’s Home, Blackrock, Cork, is running two mindfulness workshops.

An introduction to mindfulness, a half-day seminar, will run on Saturday Apr 14, 10am to 1pm.

The practice of mindfulness, a six-week course, starts on Apr 18, 7.30pm to 9.30pm.

For further details contact Claire at 021-4536551; claire.coakley@stlukeshome.ie

Positive feedback

In 2003, a study provided clear evidence that a standard eight-week course in mindfulness meditation can produce positive changes in brain activity and reduce anxiety. Subjects were also injected with the flu vaccine, which revealed that minfulness meditators had a more robust immune system, when compared to the control group. This study has been cited 1,073 times in the academic literature thus far.

Since then, the positive results have been replicated time and again, spurred on by advancements in brain monitoring and imaging technologies. Studies point to ‘neuroplasticity’: the ability of the brain to form new and beneficial cells and pathways. Memory and decision-making improvements, as well as actual increases in brain grey matter and the hippocampus, along with reductions in the amygdala, have been recorded.

In the last 12 months studies have found: “specific and clinically mean-ingful” reduction in stress levels for gay men living with HIV; a reduction in post traumatic stress disorder amongst almost 50% of war veterans; and two meta-studies showed a significant reduction in depression, in particular for more severe cases. A recurring re-search theme is that mindfulness meditation is at least as effective as medication.

Many Irish hospitals and care centres, including St James’ in Dublin, use mindfulness meditation. There, Dr Noirin Sheahan runs a course in mindfulness based stress reduction.

According to the hospital’s medical consultant in pain medicine, Dr Connaill McCrory: “Two decades of re-search conclude that 70% of patients who suffer chronic pain find that mindfulness practice reduces their pain significantly.”

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