Mindfulness is a seriously hot topic these days.
But it’s been an important plank in Buddhism for centuries. In fact, learning how to maintain calm and intent awareness in every aspect of life is one of the ‘factors of enlightenment’.
In recent years, the western world has begun to realise how helpful mindfulness can be. As a result, it has been embraced by many psychologists and psychotherapists in a bid to help their clients achieve a state of mind in which they can truly live and focus in ‘the moment’.
So, what is it exactly? Well, it’s a mixture of meditation, and breathing, and focused awareness of things as they really are, as opposed to how we’d like them to be.
Often, when we are mentally distressed or physically ill, or struggling with some problem or other, we make things worse by trying our hardest to flee from the feelings that we have.
We say things like: ‘I can’t stand it.’ Or: ‘It’s not fair that I have to suffer like this.’
But mindfulness helps us to deal with these feelings, not by fleeing from them, but by being curious about them and accepting of them. And this can have a calming and therapeutic effect.
One of the most popular mindfulness exercises is to spend 10 minutes contemplating – and then eating – a raisin. I’m not sure who first dreamt this up, but it was probably an eminent American psychotherapist called Zindel Segal. Certainly he was the first person I saw demonstrating it, on a training DVD.
As someone who is pretty sceptical by nature, I thought the whole thing was quite barmy! And I almost dismissed it from my mind.
But one day, not long afterwards, I was seeing a patient who was extremely distressed and agitated. I was struggling in my attempts to help her. And then I remembered the raisin technique.
By chance, I happened to have a snack-sized packet of dried fruit in my briefcase so I offered my client a choice of raisin, picked one myself and we embarked on this adventure – which was of course new to both of us.
My hope was that our 10-minute contemplation might alter her state of mind and give her some respite from her horribly intrusive thoughts and stresses.
And it did.
Since then, I have used the technique with many other people – and on myself.
In fact, it works so well for me that I now only have to hold a raisin in my hand to become instantly chilled. And that’s a great feeling.
So, the raisin technique is very useful if you are stressed or unhappy. And you may want to try it – especially if you’re prepared to give up 10 minutes a day to do it on a regular basis.
I am now also using this technique with clients who want to lose weight and who have a difficult relationship with food.
So often in such cases, food is loved and yet hated. It is used for comfort instead of just for fuel. And it is of overriding importance in an unhealthy way.
Many people – women in particular – eat for wrong reasons. And if they are overeating, this is usually much more to do with why they are eating rather than what. Worse than that, they often eat without tasting, or savouring or enjoying, what they are putting in their mouths.
The raisin technique is really helpful here because it enables the client to slow down responses and to intently feel and smell this small item of food and to acutely experience its taste and a sense of it nourishing the body.
In fact, one woman said to me: ‘After eating that one raisin, really slowly, I feel quite full and satisfied.’
The raisin technique is not magic. But I do think it’s amazingly helpful for people with all sorts of pain and stress and suffering.
So, you might just want to give it a try.
This is what you do:
• Take a raisin and hold it in one hand, then focus on it as if you’ve never seen one before. Look at it searchingly. Notice how many grooves there are in it. How many little raised bobbles. Whether the colour is the same throughout. Whether it’s symmetrical or misshapen. Use your eyes to see it in a very intense and exploring way
• After a minute or so, alter your focus to the feel of it. You might want to close your eyes. Does it feel smooth? Soft? Sticky? Rough where the grooves are? Roll it between your middle finger and your thumb. Concentrate on what you are feeling as you touch and hold it.
• Now lift the raisin to your nose. Can you get any scent from it? Breathe in slowly and notice any aroma.
• Next gently place your raisin in your mouth. Just let it lie on your tongue for a while. Then move it around inside your mouth. Gently play with it. Ponder on the vague taste of it.
• Eventually, press your teeth onto it without biting through it. What do you notice? A change of smell? A building sense of sweetness? Focus on the experience and how intense the flavour is. Then, gently bite right through it – and become aware of how the taste increases and lingers on your tongue. Suck gently, noticing how fruity your saliva is as the raisin looses its shape and form. When you are ready, swallow it.
• Sit awhile, noticing the feeling as the raisin begins its journey down to your stomach. Become aware of the taste and smell that remains in your mouth and the slight stickiness on your fingers.
• Breathe in and out slowly. And just be.
The raisin technique is a good way to get into mindfulness. But of course you can do all sorts of things in a mindful way. Recently, I heard of a group who knit ‘mindfully’! You can certainly sit in your garden mindfully. Be at your desk at work mindfully. Eat your lunch mindfully. Relax on a busy commuter train mindfully … There are no limits.
Let me know how you get on.