Imagine driving back home from work on a nice spring day. As you get home and (mechanically) put down your car keys in the same spot they always are kept, your spouse remarks about the beautiful weather outside. It’s then that you realise that all along the drive home you barely paused to check — let alone enjoy — the weather simply because your mind was preoccupied with what had happened at work and stressing about what might happen at the meeting tomorrow.

‘This is what modern life has led us to,’ says Leila Atbi, NLP master coach and hypnotist based in Abu Dhabi. ‘Most of us switch subconsciously to auto-pilot mode and go through daily routines systematically, like a robot. We do not seem to have an awareness of what is happening at that moment but rather just let the body do what it has learned to through habits.’

This is where the concept of ‘mindfulness’ steps in. Also termed ‘presence of mind’ or ‘consciousness’, it is simply the art of living in the present — taking one moment at a time. ‘It is about being consciously aware of every feeling, action, sound, word, thought, breath or smell and enjoying each present moment as a gift,’ says Algerian expat Leila who has been a life coach for the past 20 years.

The concept of mindfulness has been in vogue for a number of years now and a lot of mindfulness centres and wellness clinics have mushroomed in the UAE with tailor-made modules for individuals and corporates. But Leila claims it is essentially a basic instinct that we just have to revive within ourselves.

‘Most of us are quite proud of being able to multitask. We eat while working or jog while listening to a podcast or drink tea while replying to emails; but are we enjoying our meal? Are we listening to our body’s cues while exercising? What happens these days to most of us is that while we are at work, we think about home and the other way around. While we try to relax on the beach we think about grocery shopping and so on. We are physically in one place but our mind is somewhere else. This is the main cause of stress and of lack of happiness and enjoyment that almost everyone seems to be complaining about,’ she believes.

Certified Happiness expert Pernille Kloeverpris goes a step further. She defines mindfulness as ‘being without judging. It is a way of living where we talk and listen with more attention and where the constant striving for improvement — be it personally or materialistically — is replaced by the feeling of gratitude.’

Danish expat Pernille, who holds a master’s in psychology and communication, topped her course in the Science of Happiness from the University of Berkeley, California. An adjunct professor with Abu Dhabi University, she believes the regular practice of mindfulness creates new pathways in our brain and with time, this habit benefits us mentally, socially, and health wise. ‘There is plenty of data showing a positive impact on immune system functioning as well as decrease in stress in those suffering from anxiety, depression, sleeplessness and agitation. So the earlier we start applying mindfulness into our lives, the better.’

Resha Erheim, a mental health counsellor in Dubai, feels the concept of mindfulness is deeply rooted in the principles of Islam and says the month of Ramadan is the perfect time to put it into practice.

‘Ramadan is not about shorter days at work, or less traffic before sunset or extended mall hours,’ she says, ‘The month is heavily linked with the mindfulness that is also practiced in therapy. Many Muslims see Ramadan as a time of spiritual and personal reflection, a time for healing and forgiveness, for compassion and giving, a time for acceptance. In addition, Ramadan encourages us to be more self-aware, as it is also a time for mindfulness in daily life; be it in talking, actions, eating or paying attention. When we are more aware of our thoughts, our feelings and behaviour, we are less emotionally reactive to others and situations. When we are calm, we act with more purpose and intent rather than mindlessly.’

Mindfulness is mostly about paying close attention to the present moment with intent, free from the anxiety and stresses of the future and released from the sadness and regrets of the past, explains Resha Erheim
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Giving one specific explanation of mindfulness is challenging as it is often based on a person’s subjective experience, she says. ‘It is mostly about paying close attention to the present moment with intent, free from the anxiety and stresses of the future and released from the sadness and regrets of the past.’

Practising mindfulness could be hugely beneficial because much of mental and emotional problems and stress come from overthinking about past experiences or future worries, says the expert. ‘It also encourages us to practice being non-judgmental.’

But what has led to the concept of consciousness, something that has been around since time immemorial, becoming a buzzword today? Where did we lose out on our basic instinct of mindfulness?

According to Leila, all of us are born mindful. ‘In fact, new-borns and young children are innately present and mindful. Just observe them while they are playing or discovering their environment, they are totally focused, present and so blissfully happy. I would say children are our mindfulness teachers, not the other way around.’

But once they begin growing up, adults start teaching and conditioning them to a particular pattern of behaviour and conduct. ‘As children are silent observers, they learn directly from imbibing their immediate environment: their parents first, then the other important adults in their life like teachers. And in this process of undue conditioning, they become programmed to act and react in set patterns.’

Pernille agrees, illustrating her viewpoint with an example of something her 11-year-old nephew recently did. ‘He joined the traffic safety patrol at his school,’ says Pernille. ‘On being asked “why?” his reply was that it would look good in his resume.

‘This rather early focus on achievements is a tendency that can be found everywhere in our society, and even young children are busy planning for their future.’

She insists that she does not encourage people to stop preparing for the future. ‘On the contrary, “drive” is the very essence of human nature. But the benefits of reconnecting with ourselves are indisputable. What parents should realise is that we are training our kids to be busy responding to demands and requirements deriving from social life or inner expectations — by learning, planning, developing etc. However, it is more important to train and to focus our mind on purpose. Without that, we will not gain much from any achievement.’

Experts also caution adults about allowing children to spend a large amount of time on devices. ‘Smartphones and tablets make them oblivious to their surroundings even more,’ says Pernille. ‘The time that they engage in good habits and activities becomes less. They become more socially withdrawn.’

She cites a research finding that showed that the average number of best friends a child had 10 years ago was three; today the number is down to two.

As for adults, a quick look at divorce rates also reveals ‘a worrying picture and we might ask ourselves if we are losing the very fabric of sociability that has made us survive for millions of years.’

Realising the importance of inculcating the concept of mindfulness in children, Greenfield Community School (GCS) in Dubai became the first in the UAE to open a ‘Mindfulness Room’ in its primary section two years ago. It offers children a place where they can re-center themselves and grow as individuals while focusing on all things positive. Providing a relaxing environment for students to escape to, it also contains iPads with guided meditation routines, a Gratitude Tree for students to display what they are thankful for, a sensory room with a range of stimuli to engage the senses, a reading area, and a positive affirmation wall.

Since the relevance of practicing mindfulness is now greater than ever, Leila advices families to model being calm, totally focused and enjoy each moment together.

‘A child who practices what he or she does best, focusing and enjoying each moment at home or school, will be more peaceful and focused. They will certainly feel safer growing and learning and will ultimately become happier adults later in life. I believe the world will be a much better place for each one of us,’ says Leila who is the co-author of international bestselling book Magnetic Entrepreneur — A personality That Attracts.

The experts also claim there is no fixed time during which it can be practised. ‘A simple, yet effective approach is to be curious about life, about everything, like young children are. For them, everything is new, undiscovered. Their life is full of “first times”. So what if we remind ourselves how it looks, sounds, feels, smells, or tastes like, to do things for the first time? Just say: “Let me drink this glass of water, as if it was the first time.”, “Let me drive my car, as if it was the first time.” or “Let me walk in the park as if it was the first time.”’

The human mind is easily suggestible and will play along effortlessly. It is all about the intention and it works like magic! Other ways to experience mindfulness would be through meditation and yoga. Leila herself finds it fascinating to be effortlessly present in the moment while playing games like darts or billiards.

‘Mindfulness is not pills that can be popped into your mouth to get desired results,’ says Pernille. ‘It is a practice of bringing attention to a present moment and creating a stronger pathway in your brain.’ She suggests starting small in terms of time, as it can be quite a challenge in the beginning. ‘Slowly you can schedule it according to your needs and practise it as a lifestyle.’

Pernille’s student, 22-year-old Malaz Osman, has been practicing mindfulness for the past five months. Apart from attuning her mind to be positive and conscious every moment of the day, she spends one hour every night before bed in meditation and deep reflection. ‘I am now able to concentrate more and absorb information better. Mindfulness makes you less stressed by time because you are fighting negative emotions by being in the moment and focusing only on that. It has made me more stable and robust in terms of my thoughts about everything, and increased my ability to remember things in regular basis,’ she says.

Breathing, one of the pillars of yoga, is a tool that can aid mindfulness. According to Reisha, mindful breathing is also an integral part of the practice and meditation. ‘The Muslim prayer, performed five times a day, is similar to mindfulness meditation, by bringing awareness to the present moment with intent and focus,’ she says.

The benefits of practising mindfulness include peace, greater enjoyment, safety, better health, enhanced productivity and creativity, better relationships and happier families. ‘Ultimately it brings us a step closer towards the advancement of humanity.’ says Leila.

‘It helps on a social level, where listening and showing compassion becomes easier,’ says Pernille. ‘Learning, too, is improved — as mentioned earlier there is no memory without attention. Then come the health benefits in our body with reduction in stress, improved immune system and blood pressure, as well as more resilience just to mention a few. Lastly, there is the feeling of positive emotions after a practice such as joy, relaxation, and well-being.’

How to deal with stressed or overthinking

• Become aware, let go of negative thoughts without judgement.

• Mindfully breathe; bring your attention to deliberate breaths by meditation or yoga.

• Focus on the present; this will help you recognise and experience more pleasant moments of joy and happiness.

• Practise gratitude by noting or writing down three things you were grateful for the day.

• Take 10 minutes daily to do nothing, just be present — in the here and now.

• Observe what is going on around you, with curiosity, e.g. animals playing, admiring trees and flowers, watching a lovely sunrise or sunset.