Sunday 26 May 2013

Mindfulness in a Nutshell

What exactly is "mindfulness", the theme of this blog? Why be mindful? How can mindfulness be developed? I aim to provide a brief introduction to these topics here.

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is the art of conscious living. This involves a mode of being that involves non-judgemental awareness of the present moment (Kabat-Zinn, 2003), allowing us to wake up, reconnect with ourselves and with the world, and to appreciate the richness of every moment. 
  1. Present moment: Noticing whatever is actually here, right here, right now. Not what happened yesterday, or what you need to do tomorrow, or where you would like to be...but allowing yourself to fully experience what is already here. This could involve the breath, bodily sensations, sounds, thoughts, or a "choiceless awareness" of any aspect of the present moment.
  2. Awareness: Paying attention. This is an active process of continually bringing your attention back to what you are observing in the present moment whenever your mind gets carried away. In this sense, mindfulness involves mastery of the mind, the opposite of mindlessness.
  3. Non-judgemental: Accepting, embracing, and remaining equanimous to those present-moment experiences that you are paying attention to. Taking a break from liking and disliking, and instead, simply noticing whatever is here and allowing it to be.

Why be mindful?

Mindfulness is based on an awareness that we literally only have moments to live. We spend much of our time thinking, planning and worrying about the future, or regretting and ruminating about the past. Each time our mind wanders from where we are in the present moment, we reduce our ability to fully experience and appreciate the present moment. By bringing our awareness back into this present moment, right here, right now, we can really live life in its full richness.

Therefore, by cultivating an accepting, non-judgemental attitude, and a mind that is able to both stay and see things as they are in the present moment, mindfulness has the potential to reduce the impact and influence of stressful thoughts and feelings, to promote balance, calm and peace, and emotional stability, and to develop self-acceptance and self-compassion.

In Western psychology, there has recently been an explosion of interest in mindfulness. It's no wonder why, when you consider the promising results of studies so far, which have linked mindfulness with reduction in anxiety and mood problems (Hofmann, Sawyer, Witt, & Oh, 2010; Evans et al., 2007), increased left-sided anterior brain activation (associated with positive emotions) and improved immune function (Davidson et al., 2003), reduced size of amygdala (involved in stress responses) and significantly reduced perceived stress (Hölzel et al., 2010), and improvements in self-reported depressive symptomatology, negative affect, working memory capacity, and sustained attention (Chambers, Lo, & Allen, 2008).

Given all of these likely benefits, it seems fair to conclude that mindfulness has a real potential to promote peace, wellbeing and health.

How is it developed? 

Mindfulness can be developed through both "formal" and "informal" practice.

Formal practice can involve sitting practices, such as mindfulness of the breath, mindfulness of the body, and mindfulness of sounds and thoughts. It can also involve a body scan, lying down. Alternatively, walking meditation is a suitable practice for those who don't like the idea of sitting or lying still.

10 minutes a day is a good place to start, and even 5 minutes a day can make a difference.

Here are some basic instructions for mindfulness of the breath and mindfulness of the body:

Mindfulness of the Breath

Breath is life. Mindfulness helps us to get in touch with the breath and how it changes with our moods, and to recognise how precious it is to be breathing.

  1. Sit upright with wakefulness and dignity
  2. Bring your attention to the sensations of the breath in the belly or nostrils, or wherever else you can feel the breath. Stick with this location for the session.
  3. Feel the full duration of each in-breath and each out-breath.
  4. When you notice that your mind is no longer on the breath (this is inevitable!), notice what is on your mind in that moment, and let it go, then escort your attention back to the breath.

Mindful Walking 

Bring your full awareness to the sensations of walking, noticing:

  • The physical sensations of the contact of the feet with the ground
  • The weight of your body transmitted through your legs and feet to the ground
  • The changing patterns of physical sensations in the legs and feet as you transfer the weight of the body into each leg
  • The movements of the body as it changes direction

You may like to start by walking at a pace that is slower than usual, and try faster speeds later.

Informal practice, which involves bringing mindfulness into everyday life, is just as important, and possibly even moreso, than formal practice. This is because the point of formal practice is to be able to bring mindful awareness into daily life, to bring the being into the doing. Here are a couple of suggestions:

Mindfulness of Everyday Activities 

Choose a routine activity in your daily life (e.g. brushing your teeth, showering, getting dressed, eating) and make a deliberate effort to bring moment-to-moment awareness to that activity each time you do it. Simply focus on knowing what you are doing as you are actually doing it.

3-Minute Breathing Space 

The breathing space provides a way to step out of “automatic pilot” and reconnect with the present moment.
  1. Awareness: Bring yourself into the present moment, asking yourself, “What is my experience right now…in thoughts…in feelings…and in bodily sensations?” Acknowledge and register your experience, even if it is unwanted.
  2. Gathering: Gently redirect full attention to breathing, to each in-breath and to each out-breath as they follow, one after the other.
  3. Expanding: Expand the field of your awareness around your breathing, so that it includes a sense of the body as a whole, your posture, and facial expression.


Jon Kabat-Zinn's statement, "Mindfulness is about living life as if it really mattered," is an apt summary of what mindfulness is and why we should be mindful. Every moment is fragile and precious, and if we value life, then we need to be here to experience it. There are compelling reasons to believe that this way of existence is beneficial for us on psychological, medical, social and spiritual levels. It is exciting that Western medicine and psychology are finally recognising and validating the benefits of mindfulness, and I am looking forward to learning from, and hopefully contributing to, future research.


  • Chambers, R., Lo., C., & Allen, N. B. (2008). The impact of intensive mindfulness training on executive cognition, cognitive style, and affect. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 32, 303-322.
  • Davidson, R. J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli, S., et al. (2003). Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65, 564-570.
  • Evans, S., Ferrando, S., Findler, M., Stowell, C., Smart, C., & Haglin, D. (2008). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for generalized anxiety disorder. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 22(4), 716-721.
  • Hofmann, S. G., Sawyer, A. T., Witt, A. A., & Oh, D. (2010). The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 78(2), 169-183.
  • Hölzel, B.K., Carmody, J., Evans, K.C., Hoge, E.A., Dusek, J.A., Morgan, L... Lazar, S.W. (2010). Stress reduction correlates with structural changes in the amygdala. Social Cognitive & Affective Neuroscience, 5(1), 11-17.
  • Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness-based interventions in context - Past, present and future. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10(2), 144-156.

Wednesday 1 May 2013

Free Hugs at UniMelb

Yesterday, a group of students studying a Positive Psychology breadth subject, Motivation, Wellbeing and Performance at the University of Melbourne, took on the role of "huggers" for an hour, offering free hugs to anyone and everyone. Incidentally, I wasn't taking this subject, but had found out about the event through Facebook and decided to join in, since I love hugs, and it seemed like a perfect opportunity to spread some goodwill and to do something spontaneous.

The Huggers.
Source: The University of Melbourne Facebook Page.

Why Free Hugs?

The lecturer for the subject briefed us before we embarked on our hugging mission, reminding us of the rationale for this project. Hugs promote the release of oxytocin from the pituitary gland, which enhances empathy and the ability to trust others, as well as reducing the stress hormone cortisol. 

Personally, I saw it as a fantastic opportunity to promote connectedness amongst people. Too often, we are exclusive, reclusive and selective of who we trust and connect with. To me, free hugs is a way of breaking down that barrier of the Other and just recognising that we are all human and can bring happiness to others in a simple, yet meaningful way. It's a way of expressing affection in a non-selective way.

What did we do?

There were about 26 of us wearing FREE HUGS t-shirts or holding FREE HUGS signs. We swarmed around a popular path on campus and moved to an even busier location later, promoting "our product" by asking passersby if they would like a free hug and yelling out the benefits of hugs. Examples of what I said included:
  • "Free hugs for all!!"
  • "Hugs for happiness!!"
  • "Free hugs!! Woooo!!"
  • "Would you like a free hug?"
  • "Hugs are good for you!"
  • "Hugs reduce stress!"

How did people react?

People more-or-less reacted as I had expected. While there were a few people who enthusiastically accepted a free hug, it remained the case that the vast majority of people did not want to be hugged by complete strangers. Thus, the responses to "Would you like a free hug?" seemed to fall into these categories:
  1. The Enthusiastic Hugger: "Absolutely! I love hugs!"
  2. The Casual Hugger: "Yeah, sure, why not?"
  3. The Awkward Hugger: "Uh...ok."
  4. The Amused Passerby: (no response, walks away smiling)
  5. The Anxious Passerby: (gives strange look, walks away as quickly as possible)
  6. The Non-Hugger: "No thanks, I'm not into hugging."
There were far more rejections than hugs given, for sure! I'll let you make your own inferences about what that reflects or implies about our society and culture. Nonetheless, I know we brought a smile to many, whether from the happiness of a hug, or from the amusement of the spectacle.

What was it like being a hugger?

I have to say, this project actually required a lot of courage. It would be an understatement to say that it was a high-exposure task. It was super-awkward to begin with, and that awkwardness was always in the background. The most important thing though, was for huggers to be able to laugh off rejections and to remain focused on the goal of spreading joy, happiness and connectedness.

This focus made the whole process an exhilarating and mindful experience. I maintained a non-judgemental attitude towards all potential huggees, and was present and acutely aware of what was going on in each moment. By the end of the session, I felt a strong feeling of goodwill and love towards others, and was in a much lighter and more positive state of mind.


Human beings have a need to connect with others. Free hugs are a simple, free and genuine way to promote this goal, in a way that is fulfilling for both the hugger and the huggee. Despite the majority of people tending to reject free hugs, it remains a noble goal, bringing benefits to those who are willing to overcome the barrier of strangers and sociocultural norms, to connect with, share affection for and appreciate a fellow human being. Hopefully in the future, with more free hugs campaigns throughout in the world, there will be an increased acceptance of the value of free hugs in promoting connectedness and love.

I'm interested in your thoughts...

  • Would you accept a free hug?
  • Are hugs something that should only be given to friends and family?
  • Would you ever consider offering free hugs?
  • What would be your biggest fear in offering free hugs?'s the video!