Film maker Shannon Harvey went searching for “the mental equivalent of five servings of fruit and veg” and discovered something called ‘mindfulness meditation.’ She documented her year-long commitment to the experiment, and the results surprised even her.
Exactly 1009 days ago things weren’t pretty. I was an anxious insomniac, a full-time working mother, and I never felt as though there was enough time in the day.
There were also troubling signs that my autoimmune illness (Sjogren’s syndrome), which causes arthritic chronic pain and fatigue when I let my stress get out of control, was going to flare.
As a health journalist I knew better and needed to get back on track. In 2014 I released my first film, The Connection which is about the scientific evidence demonstrating that when it comes to having a chronic illness, we fare better when we take a whole-person, mind-body approach.
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So with the full knowledge that I need to take care of my mind as well as my body, I went in search of the mental equivalent of a daily 30-minute workout or five servings of fruit and veg for my mind. That’s how I landed on mindfulness meditation, an ancient practice with a fledgling, but ever-growing library of scientific studies, which suggest potential benefits for mental health through regular practice.
I wondered what would happen if I committed to meditating every day for a year and recruited a team of six Australian scientists to poke, prod, scan and screen me in order to track what (if anything) changed in my stress hormones, my immune function, my brain, my cells and my subjective wellbeing.
Without giving away the ending (no spoilers here), there were three surprising things that happened during my year of living mindfully.
1. I learned that mindfulness isn’t about relaxation
This is a common misunderstanding and a legacy from when mindfulness first started becoming popular in the West. People such as Harvard University Professor Herbert Benson (who discovered the “Relaxation Response” in the early 1970s by studying Transcendental Meditators) and Jon Kabat-Zinn (the microbiologist-turned meditation teacher who in the late 1970s developed a world-famous eight-week course called “Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction”) paved the way for mindfulness to become embedded into the fabric of many hospitals, schools and even parliaments. But even though mindfulness practice can be relaxing, it’s not actually the main game. The actual aim is to train our mind and change the way we relate to our thoughts, feelings and experiences by cultivating non-judgemental awareness.
2. Mindfulness didn’t make me happier
Although the subjective wellbeing results showed a significant boost at the end of my mindful year, the surprising truth is I don’t think that mindfulness makes me happier. That might be controversial to anyone who’s ever read the title of many bestselling mindfulness books, but for me, mindfulness training enables me to get some distance from my difficult thoughts, feelings and chronic pain; to become comfortable in life’s inevitable discomfort. The word I use in the film to explain this is discomfortable and I think it makes all the difference.
3. I ended up meditating every day for 1009 days (and counting)
Eventually, my motivation to practice came less from having the scientific experiment as my “stick” and more from having the wellbeing benefits as my “carrot.” Despite having to cancel more than 150 screenings of the film around the world in March and now having to release a feature film online in the middle of a pandemic (with two small children at home), I haven’t had insomnia once.
Shannon Harvey’s film is screening free at www.myyearoflivingmindfully.com May 27 – June 03. It will also be available to buy on the film’s website, iTunes and Amazon from June 4.