Mindfulness: can we have your full attention?
A large part of Wellbeing Week is dedicated to mindfulness, so it's a perfect time to dive deeper into the subject. Based on five frequently asked questions, Martin van Boxtel, associate professor at the School for Mental Health and Neuroscience and mindfulness trainer, explains what mindfulness is, how it can contribute to your wellbeing and how you become mindful.
1. Is mindfulness spiritual?
‘There is no single global definition’, says Martin van Boxtel. ‘Here in the West, we often follow the vision of Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of mindfulness training as we know it here. According to him, it's about being present in the moment, without judgement, without wanting things to be different than they are. In other words, you focus your attention entirely on your present experience and being aware of environmental noise and thoughts that distract you. Contrary to what many people think, it's actually a very practical skill.’ So, there doesn't have to be anything spiritual about it.
2. Do you need to be flexible to be mindful?
Like your muscles, you can train your mindfulness. Such training can be done in various ways: from a body scan to various types of yoga and meditation. Van Boxtel prefers to call the latter attention exercises, as this usually conjures up less strong associations. There is always a type of mindfulness that suits you, even if you are not flexible. ‘To start with, you don't necessarily have to have the feeling that you need it in your life’, says Van Boxtel. ‘Just be open to it and explore what it brings you.’
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Martin van Boxtel is a doctor and associate professor at Maastricht University's School for Mental Health and Neuroscience (MHeNs). He studied medicine in Maastricht. He is interested in the relationship between health, cognitive ageing and dementia. Van Boxtel teaches at both the Faculty of Health Medicine and Life Sciences and the Faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience. He is also a mindfulness trainer.
Mindfulness is about being present in the moment, without wanting things to be different than they are.
Van Boxtel himself practises meditation, sometimes in the form of longer retreats. For him, it all started years ago when he wanted to know more about mindfulness and its effects on health. ‘I studied medicine because I've always been interested in why people get ill, what makes them better and what they themselves can do to prevent illness. That made me curious about mindfulness as a possible complement to traditional healthcare.’
3. Are the effects of mindfulness scientifically proven?
While the predominantly rationally-oriented academic world may have initially been somewhat condescending towards mindfulness (‘mindfulness is something you experience primarily through your heart, not your head’), Van Boxtel has noticed a growing interest both within and outside Maastricht University. We know more and more about the scientifically proven effects of mindfulness. Research shows that the brains of people who frequently meditate look different, and that meditation can help one deal with stress better. Other research shows that people who regularly practise mindfulness are more satisfied with their work and less emotionally exhausted.
Van Boxtel worked intensively on the TANDEM study which showed that mindfulness can contribute to the wellbeing of people with early onset dementia and their caregivers. Yet studies like this are only the beginning. ‘There's still a lot we don't know. For example, we have evidence that mindfulness changes the way people live, leading them to age healthier and lose cognitive abilities more slowly. However, to prove that we obviously need long-term research.’
To start with mindfulness, you don't necessarily have to have the feeling that you need it in your life. Just be open to it and explore what it brings you.
4. Does mindfulness make you zen?
According to Van Boxtel, mindfulness can help you to become more balanced and to reap the benefits of being more balanced in your daily life and personal development. ‘By consciously focusing your attention on what you are experiencing, you learn to recognise when you are acting on autopilot and to identify what you need instead.’ It can give you valuable insights, although you won't get them overnight; practising mindfulness can sometimes seem like hard work.
‘Sometimes it's relaxing, sometimes it's hard to keep your attention. The trick is to keep going; you only start to experience the effect when you do it regularly. It certainly takes some time, effort and discipline, but the insights you get in return will stimulate you to continue. Eventually you will notice that you also experience benefits during your work or study. Research has shown that medical residents who practise mindfulness experience less stress at work.’
5. Does mindfulness focus only on positive experiences?
More and and more employers and educational institutions are offering mindfulness training. Ideally in the future, Maastricht UMC+ will have a complete Centre for Mindfulness, so that it can be applied even more in research and education, but also in healthcare. For example, people with physical or mental pain can benefit from it. Van Boxtel: ‘During the practice of mindfulness, you also encounter negative experiences. That can sometimes be confrontational and unpleasant. But by not putting them away and opening yourself up to what is there, you lift the proverbial weight off your shoulders. In this way, the pain disappears into the background and you discover how you can deal with the situation in a different way.’
Remarkably, research shows that you do not necessarily have to believe in mindfulness to experience its effects. Van Boxtel: ‘It helps you to be autonomous and full of life. To just experience everything as it presents itself and to learn and act on that basis. Or as the inspiring Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön says, ‘Nothing ever goes away until it teaches us what we need to know.’
Want to know more about mindfulness?
Look at the options during Wellbeing Week, register for a multi-week training, or start working with apps like Headspace or Calm.