“It’s kind of like torture,” said Jia Li.

The word ‘torture’ may not commonly find itself within a conversation about mindfulness meditation, but the two are not mutually exclusive. After all, mindfulness is all about maintaining a moment-to-moment awareness of one’s bodily sensations, feelings, and thoughts. And sometimes, the thoughts of a person can be rather dark.

Clouded by periodic bouts of sadness and stress, Strategic Management student Jia Li was in search of a way to cope. She recognized within herself an ineptitude to deal with her darker internal sentiments, turning rather to more negative coping methods like stress eating or distraction via social media. After learning that the Erasmus University was offering its first course in mindfulness meditation taught in English, Li decided to give it a chance.

Awareness is Key

In a typical session of mindfulness training, student psychologist Sachlan Apil eases his class of a dozen students into the practice by instructing them to recognize the various thoughts that surface in their mind and then retract their focus back to their breath. This process is repeated over and over again as a way to establish awareness of the mind’s wandering tendencies. Once aware, the mind becomes better equipped to confront a sole issue.

“I was hoping to, I guess you could say, find my inner-peace through mindfulness,” said Li. “But later on I found out it’s not about finding inner-peace or calming yourself down. It’s more about awareness, understanding why you feel the way you do.”

“The aim of mindfulness is not to get rid of difficult emotions and feelings, but rather, to help you relate differently to those emotions,” Apil told EM. “Students tell me that they don’t want to feel depressive symptoms or feelings of anxiety, but these emotions are very important because they tell us a lot about how we see things in our world. With mindfulness, you can approach these emotions differently so that you don’t struggle with them.”

The body-mind connection

Mindfulness foto 2 Mazur
Sitting up or lying down, Mindfulness can be practiced in any position. Image credit: Anna Mazur

Legs crossed, hands facing upwards resting on the sides of the knee caps. This is the sitting position so commonly associated with mindfulness, yet this isn’t the only way it can be practiced. In one of Li’s favorite exercises, the body scan, she lays down and centers her focus on a particular body part, like the big left toe. Then she shifts her focus up to her shins, then to her knees, and upward throughout the whole body, connecting her mind with the sensations felt in the body.

“Just by doing the body scan, I feel like I’m shutting off my autopilot,” Li said. “I emerge relaxed from it. I can think clearly about everything I do.”

Attention to negativity

Though exercises like the body scan have led Li to moments of bliss, others have brought her frantic anxiety. In one of more advanced exercises practiced during the late stages of the course, Apil has his students focus intensely on their current thoughts and feelings whether they be cheerful or painful. For Li, it was the latter. She explained that such exercises were by no means easy, which could be the reason why half of the students had dropped out before the eighth and final session of the course.

“It’s kind of like torture,” Li said of the exercise. “Everybody in the room could feel how angry I was. The thing is, normally when I have negative thoughts I avoid them and focus on something else. Now I’m starting to come face to face with my biggest fears, learning to embrace them in one way, and coming to peace with them in another.”

The present

Part of what mindfulness attempts to do is bring awareness to self-induced stress. Us humans spend the better half of our days trying to find solutions to different issues, and according to Apil, we’re so good at this that we try to apply our problem-solving abilities to things in the future or the past that we have no control over, which creates unneeded stress.

With mindfulness, you can direct your ability to solve issues to the present moment.

“Sometimes I just feel stressed or a bit sad without knowing the reason why,” said Li. “Through mindfulness, I’ve learned to focus on the underlying thoughts to uncover what’s bothering me. I’ve become more rational and objective towards my feelings, and that helps me a lot.”

The Erasmus mindfulness course may have come to a close in April, but Li is still using it in her everyday life. As for students who want to learn the practice, an eye should be kept on SIN-online for messages about the next round of mindfulness.