What is Mindfulness?
Have you ever got up from your chair with the intention of doing something very specific, such as switching off a light in another room, only to get back into your chair and realise you can’t remember if you actually switched the light off? Or sat down to eat dinner whilst staring at the TV, only to notice afterwards that you barely tasted or appreciated what you were eating? If you answered yes to either of these questions, you’re not alone. You’ll also be relieved to know you’re not suffering from premature ageing. For those of you sick of hearing the word Mindfulness and having no idea what it’s all about, the two scenarios I just described are the opposite of what it means to be mindful.
Mindfulness literally means to be in the present, aware of what’s happening in the moment rather than lost in thoughts about the past or worried about the future. With our lives as busy as they are, we’re often stuck in auto-pilot, racing to get things done or achieve things rather than enjoying and appreciating life and the things and people around us. When your awareness is in the present moment, you’re able to observe your thoughts and emotions as they arise without judging them and without trying to make them go away or getting caught up in them and being swept away by the current. With this attitude, we’re more likely to respond appropriately to situations rather than react in harmful and unhealthy ways. We also tend to be calmer, less anxious and enjoy life more. Sounds pretty good, right, but how do we do incorporate mindfulness into our lives? To answer this question, I’ll first explain the seven attitudes of Mindfulness:
Mindfulness involves being aware of thoughts and feelings which arise, moment-to-moment, without making judgements. What tends to happen is that as thoughts and feelings arise, we quickly make judgements without being aware we’re even doing so. These automatic judgements cause us to react, often in a way which is not objective. For instance, if a colleague walks past us without acknowledging us, we may immediately jump to various conclusions – ‘I did something to upset them’; ‘she doesn’t like me’; ‘she’s very rude’, and so on. These are automatic judgements and not facts. Mindfulness teaches us that thoughts and feelings related to incidents which occur can simply be observed and then allowed to pass. Many possibilities exist, such as that your colleague may just have received bad news, may have a lot on her mind, and so on. Refraining from judging allows you to remain calm and continue to enjoy your day without being bogged down by negative thoughts.
In mindfulness, we exercise patience towards our mind and body. Patience is particularly useful when our minds are agitated or we’re experiencing some kind of distress, allowing us to accept this internal chaos without getting caught up in it.
Adopting an attitude of ‘Beginner’s mind’ requires us to be willing and open to see things as if for the first time. Very often, we allow our feelings and beliefs about what ‘we know’ stop us from seeing things as they really are. Beginner’s mind reminds us each moment is unique and contains new possibilities.
Part of mindfulness is developing a sense of trust in yourself, paying attention to your intuition and trusting it rather than being overly-reliant on external guidance.
We have a tendency to constantly strive to achieve something or get somewhere, racing against time to complete an endless to-do list. The belief in mindfulness is that we are okay just as we are now. Rather than striving to be someone or something else, if we focus and accept things as they are now, we will still achieve our goals when the time is right.
Acceptance means seeing things as they really are in this moment. We often use a lot of our time and energy to deny or resist what’s happening, which delays the process of dealing with issues and allowing positive change to take place. Acceptance doesn’t mean that we take a passive stance of resignation or that we tolerate injustices. We’re more likely to know what to do in a situation if we can see it for what it really is.
We have a tendency to hold on to pleasant thoughts and feelings and resist distressing or unpleasant ones. When being mindful, we observe our thoughts and feelings without judgement or pressure to make them disappear. By letting them be and accepting them in that moment, we are actually letting them go.
How can we practice Mindfulness?
Mindfulness can be practiced formally and informally. Formal mindfulness practice refers to meditation, which is a very important aspect of mindfulness. If meditation is something you think only hippies do, it may be time for you to challenge this notion. Meditation is simply sitting or lying down (although there are even walking meditations), focusing on the breath, and experiencing just ‘being’ as opposed to ‘doing’.
Informal mindfulness practice involves you living in the moment throughout your daily lives. For instance, you can eat mindfully by actually focusing on what you’re eating, noticing the taste, texture and colour of the food, rather than simply shoveling the food into your mouth while reading or watching a film. You can even walk mindfully, allowing yourself to notice things you walk by each day with enhanced awareness. For instance, noticing the feel of the pavement beneath your feet, or noticing the sounds of birds in the trees as you walk beneath them.
What can Mindfulness do for you?
Much research has been conducted on the benefits of Mindfulness, the results so positive that Mindfulness is now being taught in schools, organisations and incorporated into hospital treatment programmes.
Some of the ways you could benefit:
Reduced stress through improved emotion regulation. Mindfulness teaches people to be aware of their feelings and thoughts as they arise, encouraging them to observe them non- judgementally and with an attitude of acceptance and compassion. Rather than react or feel overwhelmed by distressing or uncomfortable emotions, we are in a better position to respond calmly and with more clarity.
Improved attention. The experience of meditation encourages people to focus on the breath and other aspects of their inner experience, whilst trying to quiet the mind of constant chatter and noise. When thoughts arise, the meditator is encouraged to accept such thoughts as a natural part of our mental functioning, but to let the thoughts go and re-focus on the breath. Through regular practice, meditators improve their ability to concentrate and become quicker at re-focusing when their mind wanders in other circumstances. According to a study by Wolever, R et al (2012), reported in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology (2012), mindfulness-based programmes can reduce perceived stress in the workplace and result in an increase in concentration levels, including memory tasks and multi-tasking.
Enhanced empathy and compassion. Two key components of mindfulness are non-judgement and non-reaction, both of which encourage people to take a more accepting and compassionate stance towards themselves and their experiences. Once we learn to be more compassionate with ourselves and our circumstances, we find it easier to be empathic and compassionate with others.
Reduced anxiety. Since mindfulness encourages people to be in the here-and-now rather than thinking ahead or focusing on the past, less time is spent on worrying and ruminating. Mindfulness also focuses on breathing and grounding techniques which help people to remain calm regardless of what’s going on around them, and in time helps people calm themselves down quicker and respond more healthily to troubling thoughts and feelings. In a 2013 Massachusetts General Hospital study, 93 individuals diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder were randomly assigned to an 8-week group intervention with mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) or to a control group, stress management education. The group that went through the MBSR program was associated with a significantly greater reduction in anxiety.
Manage and reduce depression. People who are feeling depressed are often dealing with negative thoughts, feelings and beliefs about themselves. Mindfulness teaches people to examine their thoughts and feelings more realistically and invite them to choose more positive and compassionate thoughts. A February 2018 meta-analysis in the Clinical Psychology Review assessed 142 clinical trials, with more than 12,000 participants with a variety of mental and behavioral health conditions. Results indicated that Mindfulness-based interventions were generally just as effective as evidence-based therapies such as standard first-line treatments like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or antidepressants—for people with depression and anxiety, both immediately post-treatment and in follow-ups.
So, the next time you’re charging down the supermarket aisles, racing to your car or doing three things at once, take a moment to ask if you really need to be in such a rush. Reflect on what are you’re missing out on when you’re not in the present. Did you even hear what your partner told you this morning? Did your friend really need your attention and presence, but your mind was somewhere else completely? And are you allowing yourself to really appreciate and enjoy the simple things which are available to you daily, such as the warmth of the sun on your back, a full moon, the colour of the leaves or flowers, or a quiet moment at home? If you can allow yourself to shift your awareness to the present every so often, it does become easier. You may even find you enjoy it.