What is mindfulness
Have you ever been in a meeting only to realise that you have no idea what a colleague has just said? What about being in your car and driving home without remembering anything about your journey and how you got there?
Everyone has experienced a state of mindlessness: sometimes described as being on autopilot; our attention is taken up by our wandering minds, our eyes glaze over; someone comments “you look miles away”, and you realise you have been lost in your thoughts. And research backs this up, showing that about half of the time the average person is in this ‘not fully there’ state where the mind flits from thought to thought expending a huge amount of time planning for the future or worrying about the past.
Of course what our minds are doing whilst preoccupied with this is enjoying the present: noticing the beauty around us, hearing our bodies, tasting the food we are eating, realising that the now is the only time we are alive, able to learn anything, express emotion or love, smell or taste, touch or communicate. This can leave us stuck in conditioned ways of thinking and living, potentially harming ourselves or others. We focus on the ‘doing’, the ‘getting stuff done’, instead of living, and in doing so are far more likely to be anxious or stressed.
So what can we do about this? How can we change things so that we are not endlessly at the mercy of our reactions, thoughts and fears? One answer is practice mindfulness. This term has been fashionable for a number of years so you may well have come across it and even have dismissed it as the latest fad!
So what is mindfulness? A well known exponent of the practice Dr Kabat-Zinn defines it as “Paying attention; on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally”.
Mindfulness is the ability to know what is happening in your head at any given moment without getting carried away by it
In practice this means a conscious or deliberate direction of attention; it means halting the habitual wanderings of our mind from the present into replays of the past or daydreams about the future.
Easy to say, harder to do! It takes practice, just as we have to work on building our muscles to be able to do push ups with ease, we also have to exercise our brain so that we find this process easier. Being engaged is a challenge, especially in our world of distractions where looking at the latest posts on Instagram offers to take our minds away from our worries as a quick fix. Mindfulness requires us to actively listen (to others, to ourselves), even when we are listening to a colleague tell the same story for the umpteen time that day. It means activating our senses even when doing something dull (in fact especially then) like emptying the dishwasher. In short, being mindful means we pay attention to our experiences and stand back from our thoughts. In doing this we should be able to recognise (eventually) when our thoughts and emotions are taking over and avoid being swept away by them.
Excitingly this should offer up freedom and choice in our lives and give us the power to cease thinking and living habitually (being often angry and frustrated for example) and try something new! Dr Langer, the Harvard Professor gives some practical examples of how this might work: instead of our minds viewing a brick as a building object, we could consider it as a bookend or a doorstop; or what about releasing ourselves from the tyranny of worrying about a test result for example and instead focusing on the learning we are experiencing as we study.
Still not sure how it actually works? I found this idea incredibly helpful: Try viewing your mind as a house and mindfulness as the tenant of the house. No one can enter the house unless the tenant opens the door; if an angry thought comes to the door, they will not turn them away, they will let the angry thought in, listen to it and let it leave. The tenant (mindfulness) doesn’t chat or argue, it let the thought say it’s piece and then lets it go away.
Like any exercise, repetition and practice is key. There are a range of ways to get mindful and so there should be something for everyone’s taste. Essentially mindfulness practice is a form of meditation and whilst traditionally we think of someone sitting cross legged on the floor in silence to do this, the truth is you can meditate, standing, lying down or even moving (walking and other movement). It often starts with paying attention to breathing and to what your body is doing and how all this interacts with the world around it. But there are so many different types of exercises to do, even something as simple as taking a pause before answering a ringing phone is a mindful practice – all of them have one thing in common, everything around you will slow down, you will halt (for a moment) the busy life you lead, the buzzing of your phone will have to stop, and for a short while you will embody quiet and be able to press pause….even if play or fast forward is just around the corner!
But, the real attraction is taking that formal mindfulness and applying it to all the other things that we do in life. My goal is to get to a place where I can clean my kitchen mindfully, take a bus ride mindfully, and get through an extremely boring presentation at work mindfully, coming out of it with some learning, more insight and better focus! Imagine that!
And amazingly the research shows outcomes that any of us would want. To start with work on the brain has shown that by training your brain to be mindful, its structure actually changes; neural pathways are built boosting concentration, flexibility and awareness. But that is not all, it can boost creativity, freeing our mind up from constraints and allowing us to think differently, more creatively. It allows our bodies to thrive alongside our minds, why else would top athletes take it so seriously? Mindfulness helps us to create clearer, more focused thinking, have better memories and become more efficient. Hugely successful companies now offer mindfulness training to their staff for exactly these reasons. But also because it reduces stress, depression, anxiety (reducing the amygdala – the part of the brain associated with fear, unhappiness and anger), helps us sleep better and in doing so increasing our sense of well being. And it is not just emotional health that benefits, our physical well being is also improved with uses for pain management, and to help recovery, boost immunity, and aid eating disorders and addictions. Mindfulness actually makes us better people, helping us to enhance our relationships, improve our emotional and social intelligence and develop our empathy and compassion. I can’t help but think that mindfulness will one day be seen, along with taking exercise and eating well, as the norm if you want to stay healthy.
Reading and hearing about mindfulness made me think, I am always complaining about how busy I am, that I don’t have time to stop and think, in the past I have found myself easily irritated and annoyed, obsessing about things that have happened that I can’t change. Something that makes me feel like that a little less has got to be a good thing hasn’t it? A way that helps us to respond wisely rather than react blindly? And then you see a list like the one above, with all the amazing benefits of mindfulness, and really what else can you conclude other than you would be crazy not to try it. Something that can start with a few minutes a day, every day, and before you know it, can literally transform your entire world!