You’ve no doubt been told about the importance of mindfulness – whether it’s from a friend or relative, the media or a Hollywood celebrity. Over the years, millions of people have turned to meditation and mindfulness in search of inner peace, perspective and a prevention for mental illness.
But does it actually work?
That’s what health journalist and mum-of-two Shannon Harvey was wondering when she embarked on her year-long pursuit of mindfulness. Backed by a team of scientists from all over Australia, Shannon not only committed to daily meditation but travelled the world speaking to experts and pioneers, in search of the mental equivalent of a 30-minute workout.
“Being a health journalist, I value evidence in my job and I wanted an objective measurement of whether daily meditation was beneficial,” says Shannon. “From a personal perspective, as someone working full-time, raising two kids, living with an autoimmune disease that causes arthritis throughout my body and battling insomnia, I wanted to know whether meditation was worth putting on my daily to do list.”
While Shannon had personal reasons for her experiment, she was also looking for a global solution.
“The leading medical journal, The Lancet, had just published a major issue that stated that every single country is failing to tackle the widespread mental health issues we are experiencing across the world,” says Shannon. “As someone who has family history of mental illness on both sides, I wanted to find answers both for the world and for my kids, knowing the challenges they could face. I kept wondering, ‘How can I be a role model to help them protect, nurture and nourish their minds, and prevent mental illness?’”
Shannon travelled from Manhattan to the Middle East, meeting with scientists who were studying the impact of mindfulness on mental health and looking for compelling case studies that could show that her approach could solve a much bigger problem.
“I am an educated woman in a peaceful country, but I wanted a global solution,” says Shannon. “I needed to see the potential of my approach for people in any circumstances, with any level of education and varying opportunities.”
The year-long experiment became the documentary ‘My Year of Living Mindfully’, released in March of this year, and later a book of the same name. Through her experience, Shannon discovered a lot about both herself and mindfulness – and over 1183 days after she started, she is still meditating every day.
“There are two components to living mindfully – the first is rigorous daily practice, which I’m committed to in the same way that I’m committed to exercising daily and eating healthy,” says Shannon. “Then, there’s the informal component which is mindfulness in action; the work that I do, the life that I lead, and the relationships I cultivate.”
There is a common perception – a misnomer, Shannon explains – that mindfulness training is like a warm bath for your mind that will instantly produce feelings of inner peace and contentment.
Rather, mindfulness training of the kind that Shannon has committed to can be difficult and unpleasant.
“One of the things my mindfulness training taught me is the idea of being discomfortable, learning the skill of being able to find contentment even when things aren’t going great,” says Shannon. “It was a big thing with my chronic pain – not wishing away my present experience when I’m having a flare up and find a sense of inner peace.”
This skill, which Shannon says she never learnt as a child, is something she is passing on to her children – it’s an age-appropriate way to teach mindfulness skills to her kids, aged seven and four.
“If my son was feeling disappointed that he didn’t get something, for example, instead of trying to distract him I will sit with him while he goes through it – and also remind him to notice how it feels when the feeling passes,” says Shannon. “I’m teaching my kids how to be okay when things aren’t going well.”
For Shannon, she sees her meditation like mental push ups.
“Say you start a new training regime at the gym,” she explains. “It’s going to be really hard in the beginning and your muscles will be sore, but after six weeks or so you’ll notice that when you’re picking your kid up, you’re stronger and it’s easier to do. That’s exactly what the mindfulness training does.”
Shannon’s top three tips for mindfulness training
- Be realistic: “I feel that the image that many people have about mindfulness training is a big misconception,” says Shannon. “The biggest thing I took away was being discomfortable. Be realistic about your expectation, see past the media hype and look at it as training and hard work.”
- Look beyond apps: “Although mindfulness apps have their place – I still use one every day – I didn’t make any true improvement until I started learning from good teachers,” says Shannon. “It’s a little bit like saying you’re going to learn a new Pilates regime just by watching YouTube videos. Try out all the different apps until you find one who you like, but also be sure to seek out experienced teachers with some type of formal training.”
- Longevity is key: “It’s also important to be realistic about how achievable it is, especially if you’ve got a busy life already,” says Shannon. “I know that I wouldn’t have stuck with the practice if I didn’t have a team of scientists behind me, but I also used a lot of behaviour change strategies and a tonne of different techniques to give myself a better chance at success.”