by Marian BuechertSpecial to the Langley Advance
Fort Langley’s Eileen Burkholder knows about stress.
As a busy clinical counsellor focusing on anxiety, depression, teetering relationships, and crisis counselling, she not only copes with her own load of personal stress, but works hard to help her clients manage theirs.
She used to calm herself by taking six-hour hikes in the mountains, but when her stress levels continued to rise, she realized that she needed to find another way, something that could be done anywhere, with ease and convenience.
Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness, introduced her to the concept of mindfulness – an old idea that is finding new enthusiasts in the twenty-first century.
Judging by how often it grabs headlines—from endorsements by an array of celebrities including Oprah and Gwyneth Paltrow to numerous studies touting the benefits of mindfulness training for customer service employees, people with depression, and restless schoolchildren—mindfulness seems to be on almost everyone’s mind.
At the same time, the misconceptions about mindfulness abound – for example – that mindfulness is a religious practice.
“Mindfulness has been developed from a Buddhist base, but is secular and can be engaged in by anyone of any faith or none,” Burkholder explained.
“It is training our awareness to be in the moment. This is not religion or indoctrination.”
Many people also confuse mindfulness with meditation.
According to Burkholder, they are related but not the same.
“Mindfulness is bringing your awareness back to the moment. Meditation is the formal training of how to develop your skills to do mindfulness,” she said.
Setting aside the myths and misbeliefs, she described mindfulness as the skill of bringing your awareness back to the moment over and over again with openness and curiosity.
“It is not necessary to have a blank mind, with no thoughts. Minds think and wander: this is normal and natural,” she elaborated.
“In mindfulness, we notice when the mind has wandered from the moment, acknowledge where it has gone, and gently bring it back. So, if the mind wanders away 100 times, we notice this and bring it back 100 times.
“When we become more aware of where our mind goes, pre-living the future or re-living the past, we can notice unhelpful patterns which may mire us in anxiety, stress, and depression. With this awareness, we can decide how we want to respond to our patterns instead of being controlled by them,” Burkholder said.
Research indicates that mindfulness practice actually alters the brain’s structure and function, improving concentration and mood regulation, and even bolstering the immune system.
One study demonstrated that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is as effective as antidepressants in preventing depressive relapse or recurrence, while another project in progress suggests that mindfulness may help adolescents resist peer pressure and stop them engaging in risk-taking behaviours such as joining gangs, binge-drinking, and taking drugs.
Despite holding so much life-changing potential, mindfulness is not difficult.
Simple exercises are a good way to start, Burkholder said.
“Everyone can incorporate a bit of mindfulness into his or her daily routine. When you first wake up, before you get out of bed, bring your attention to your breathing. Observe five mindful breaths.
“Focus attention on your daily activities such as brushing your teeth and putting on your shoes. Bring mindfulness to each activity. See if it is possible to do just one activity at a time,” she said.
Burkholder recently spent a year studying at the University of Oxford Mindfulness Centre (http://oxfordmindfulness.org/) and she will be sharing her knowledge through two free sessions in Fort Langley this month.
Tomorrow, (Monday, Jan. 23), in a one-hour session titled Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World, she will discuss how simple and powerful mindfulness practices can help break the cycle of anxiety, stress, unhappiness, and exhaustion.
Then, next Monday, Jan. 30, she will guide a 30-minute practical introduction to mindfulness meditation.
Both free sessions will begin at 7 p.m. at Rasayana Studio, Coulter Berry Building, Suite #204 9220 Glover Rd., and are open to the public.
To register online for either session, go to rasayanastudio.ca., For more information, visit EileenIntoMindfulness.com.
“A class experience often helps people deepen their mindfulness skills so they can use them when they need them most in their everyday life,” she said.
This kind of meaningful, life-changing learning is what Burkholder hopes students will take away from the class. Mindfulness, she said, is not just another self-help fad.
“Mindfulness has been around for about 2,500 years. Why has it lasted so long? It’s simple and it effectively addresses the stresses, anxieties, pain, and depression that so many of us carry. That’s no fad.”