The word ‘’Mindfulness’’ has recently become very popular in western culture. The subject has been discussed on popular day time television shows, radio programmes, online forums and written about in the health sections of magazines and newspapers.
But what is it?
Mindfulness can be defined in different ways.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, thought to be the pioneer who introduced mindfulness to western societies describes it as ‘’Paying attention in a particular way on purpose in the present moment and non-judgementally”
The Cambridge dictionary defines it as “The practice of being aware of your body, mind and feelings in the present moment and thought to create a feeling of calm”
Wikipedia describes it as “The psychological process of bringing one’s attention to the internal and external experiences occurring in the present moment which can be developed through the practice of meditation and other training” and Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh says “Mindfulness shows us what is happening in our bodies, our emotions, our minds, and in the world. Through mindfulness, we avoid harming ourselves and others.
The most obvious connection between the above descriptions of mindfulness has to do with paying to attention to the present moment in a non-judgemental way. Some methods focus internally by directing attention to the body and thoughts. Other definitions focus externally by creating awareness of what is going on around you in one’s immediate environment. What sits at the heart of mindfulness though, is being fully engaged and involved in the present moment, concentrating fully on the task at hand, current responsibilities, thoughts, feelings and physical sensations.
The opposite of mindfulness is mindlessness which may be defined as “unaware of what you are doing at the present time because of distractions”
An example might be starting a task with the intention of writing an e-mail, only to find a couple of hours later that the task hasn’t been performed because of being distracted frequently, by opening up unrelated browser windows, like social network sites etc.
Another example might be sitting in front of the television with a meal on a tray, and not even noticing or giving thought to the taste, texture and aroma of the meal. It is quite possible that there is later absolutely no recollection of what was actually eaten, because of the television distraction.
Mindfulness is not a new concept insofar as its practice has its origins in Vedic religions, Yoga and Buddhism, which suggest that some form of mindfulness has been practised by people for thousands of years.
Perhaps the biggest influence on bringing mindfulness from the East to the West, at least recently, was Jon Kabat-Zinn, who developed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR. This is aimed at anyone looking to reduce their levels of stress. Kabat-Zinn learned about and studied, mindfulness under several Buddhist teachers, including Thich Nhat Hanh who is also an influential and popular figure in western mindfulness. This gave Kabat-Zinn an Eastern foundation that he integrated with Western psychology to develop (MBSR)
This integration with Western science was a crucial aspect in helping mindfulness gain widespread popularity here in the west.
Kabat-Zinn’s MBSR served as an inspiration for a different mindfulness-based therapy system known as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) aimed at treating major depressive disorders.
Western science has now evolved to the point where it can evaluate the effectiveness of practising mindfulness, making mindfulness an attractive option for those who tend to be a little sceptical of Eastern traditions.
The Western version of mindfulness and its methods doesn’t require you to become a Buddhist. It is a question of retraining the mind to think in a different way. It is a new way of looking at all the aspects of your life so that you become more aware and less dragged down by worries and anxiety. When you incorporate this new way of thinking into your life, it is possible to experience a difference and perhaps begin to enjoy life a little more.
Mindfulness is not without its critics. One clinical psychologist has said that meditation was primarily designed not to make us happier, but to destroy our sense of individual self, who we feel and think we are most of the time and this aspect of mindfulness is often overlooked in the science and media stories about it.
There have also been several published case reports and observational studies, where people’s experiences of meditation were distressing enough to warrant further treatment due to meditation-induced psychosis, mania, depersonalisation, anxiety, panic and re-experiencing traumatic memories.
There shouldn’t be any issues if taught and practised properly because part of the mindfulness process includes incorporating the concept of detachment and non-attachment to thoughts.
Mindfulness practice and philosophy
Mindfulness can -
- Reduce rumination and overthinking. Rumination is considered to be a maladaptive form of self-reflection that can have an addictive quality. When looping negative thoughts, brooding and thinking about the past, you put yourself at greater risk of mental health issues.
- Decrease the levels of stress hormone Cortisol.
- Improve memory, concentration and general performance. Mindfulness has been shown to improve focus, memory and reading comprehension, as well as reducing a wandering mind.
- Help with emotional reactivity. Daily stressors in our lives can impact on our ability to maintain emotional stability. Mindfulness helps us respond to stressful situations in calmer, healthier ways.
- Help create happier and healthier relationships through increased happiness and less stress thus being able to more easily cope with relationship issues.
- Improve sleep. Insomnia and sleep problems are common stress reactions. Mindfulness habits promote calm and reduce rumination that can disrupt sleep.
- Provide pain relief. Mindfulness helps people notice pain without judgment, as negative thoughts and judgments exacerbate pain. These practices also afford a more accurate perception of pain, reducing the secondary suffering that comes with evaluating and worrying about pain.
By being aware of only what is happening in the present moment, we have the opportunity to directly address and manage our feelings, be they of stress, anxiety and other uncomfortable emotions and instead maintain feelings of calmness and inner peace no matter what external stimuli and distractions are present.
These techniques and practices can provide us with the ways to use throughout any life situation we may encounter and can be practised by anyone anywhere and at any time of the day as it helps to de-clutter the brain.
So what does the practice of mindfulness look like?
It could be a yoga practise that involves mindfulness. It might involve setting aside time for mindfulness meditation sessions, or it could simply involve practising mindfulness during every day mundane activities like cooking, cleaning, washing the dishes etc.
Mindfulness can be practised individually or as part of a group during a gathering.
The easiest way to begin is with full awareness of breathing as it is the simplest process to consciously control and allows us to eliminate the tension present in our minds.
Practising concentration on breathing does not require specific conditions either of time or of place. It isn’t necessary to isolate yourself and become a hermit, as it can be practised at any time, and in any situation one chooses.
All that is required is to take eight deep breaths and calm your breathing. It is necessary however to learn how to use the whole of your lungs in order to breath and not just part of them which tends to be the shallow way used by most people.
You only need to keep your breathing calm for as long as you choose. It isn’t so important to keep it calm for long periods of time, but to calm it often, so instead of long sessions of calm breathing, shorter, but more frequent sessions are advisable. As frequently as you choose and as many as you personally feel is beneficial for you.
Any mindfulness exercise should begin with breath control. It relaxes and calms the body which then enables awareness of thoughts and emotions from a detached and outside observer perspective.
A typical individual mindfulness exercise would be to use your five senses to engage with your environment. This is known as presence in reality.
Reality is defined in mindfulness as the environment that surrounds us.
We exist in the world of the mind and the world of reality.
The world of reality is real and the world of the mind isn’t real.
An example of this could be where we find ourselves.
You and I are both passengers on a train. I ask you do you think that London is real. You answer yes. But it isn’t true. We are on a train and riding in a train carriage. London exists in mind, in memory, but not in reality.
Reality is the train carriage. London would be real if you were actually in London, but the actual reality is your immediate environment, which would be the train carriage. London is reality to people there, but it is not your reality.
We tend to experience tension because we take the fantasies of our mind for being reality. Being mindful of the distinction between the world of the mind and the world of reality helps alleviate potential anxiety. It’s important to make a distinction between the world of the mind and the world of reality.
Use the five senses to engage with your immediate environment. Our senses of sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste are our most direct way of taking in everything around us.
By allowing the mind to be filled with stimuli purely based on them we could immediately get connected with what is happening around us. For instance, look around you and notice the different colours, shapes, and sizes that you can see. Smell the scents in the air. As you inhale, notice how the air feels inside your body. Observe the taste inside your mouth or lack of taste.
Reach out and touch the object closest to you, paying attention to how it feels to the touch. Acknowledge the thoughts in your mind with acceptance and without judgement. As you interact with your environment you cannot help but notice your mind drifting from the initial sensations to thoughts that would judge or even criticise whatever it is you are sensing. These are known as automatic thoughts and although they are involuntary in nature, they are completely normal mind chatter.
In mindfulness, you learn not to dwell on those thoughts, but instead to think of them merely as impermanent bubbles, rather like the bubbles that form and rise up the glass containing a fizzy drink before dissolving.
For example, you may for some reason randomly think about a person that had hurt your feelings in the past. Instead of dwelling on that thought and thinking about why or how that happened, or what could have been different, you need to become detached from the memory, as if you happen to be a mere onlooker or outside observer. This is what is known as detachment. Let the memory take its natural course until it fades away, a bit like a cloud passing you by, and the emotion associated with the involuntary thoughts dissipate due to being detached and no longer identifying with the thought because the observer is not associated with the thought. This means that the person, you, is no longer involved with the tension and anxiety that is present in the thought if indeed it is a negative thought, and subsequently our self shifts from being the author of our thoughts to that of an impersonal observer. It can be quite challenging not to react upon those thoughts though, which is why mindfulness takes practice.
Another simple way to practice mindfulness is to take a short walk around your neighbourhood and try to notice things you’ve never noticed before. Take in the scenery using all of your senses. In our busy lives, we’re usually much too absorbed and focused on where we’re going, what we have to do today, or what happened yesterday to pay attention to our surroundings. You may have noticed too that so many people these days walk around totally immersed in their smartphones.
When walking, you can be mindful of the sensation of your feet touching the ground, feeling a sense of your body’s weight as the balance shifts from one foot to the other. Is the ground hard or soft? Is the air on your skin warm or cool? Pay attention to your sensory experience.
When walking in a more mindful way you might take notice of things you have never noticed, or seen before. It might be a tree, structure, parked car or a sign. Stop and listen to whatever sounds you can hear. It might be birds tweeting, people chatting, a power tool or a distant train. These kinds of sounds usually escape our notice, so the purpose of the exercise is to become more aware of the sounds that just tend to go by unnoticed. It is about paying attention to small things.
During a nature walk or out for the purpose of foraging, for instance, it should be possible to pick up something and to observe it with close attention. It might be a rock, a leaf or a handful of soil. Look at it closely. all its colours and shapes, the texture of its surface, its scent. Is it moist or dry? Is it hard or soft? Can it be tasted? It is about observing and feeling its qualities properly using as many senses as possible in a way that may be considered mindful.
A perfect opportunity to practice mindfulness is with a herbal infusion. Drinking herbal tea can help calm, soothe, relax and can be enjoyed in a mindful way.
When you take time to make yourself a soothing cup of herbal tea, you are allowing yourself to go within.
In our current convenience-focused age, many just grab a tea bag and pop it into a cup of hot water. If you want to gain all the benefits that a relaxing herbal infusion has to offer, you need to take some time in preparing it.
Tea is best made in a closed vessel, either a teapot or a cup with a small saucer placed on top to serve as a lid. When you brew tea this way, you allow the beautiful aromatic qualities to re-circulate back into the liquid. If you brew it in a teapot or cup with a lid, the steam condenses back into the infusion.
For most herbal teas and for maximum benefit to be had, you’ll want to brew it for at least five minutes in boiling water.
The general rule is to use one teaspoon of dried herb or 3 tablespoons of fresh crushed herb per cup of boiling water. Pour boiling water over the herb leaves or flowers and steep for 5 to 10 minutes. (5 minutes is sufficient in most cases. Overlong steeping can ruin a delicate flavour.) Many of these herbal teas can also be drunk cold or made into iced teas. Keep in mind that although the general rule given applies to most teas, certain herbs have different preparation methods and steeping times. Dried herbs for herbal tea should be kept in airtight containers that do not allow light to enter.
When you’ve mindfully gone through the processes of making your brew, breathe in deeply through your nose and really inhale it properly. Take a sip and hold it in your mouth for a few seconds, allow yourself to fully experience the taste and notice the subtleties of the flavour and observe any thoughts or emotions bubbling up from an outside observer perspective. Herbal infusions can also be used in a relaxing bath. Please access the reference pages of this site to learn more about the health-giving properties of herbs and particularly check which herbs may be of use for conducting a mindfulness session. You can find this here.
What all these examples have in common is that they all involve paying attention on purpose in the present moment in a non-judgemental manner. They are all fairly straightforward methods of using mindfulness. There’s no limit to the variations mindfulness can be employed. You could practice it even when sweeping the floor.
Try to keep a daily practice going on if you can but without forcing it or obsessively thinking about it. In mindfulness, if you try to force concentration, your mind will most likely resist it in a similar way that trying to force yourself to sleep does.
Do make an effort, but make it a relaxed effort. Initially, it may be difficult to strike the right balance but with regular practice, you’ll get to learn the right amount of effort to exert so that you remain alert in the present moment and aware, but avoiding tension and anxiety.
Be patient, keep up the practice and the benefits of mindfulness will start to change your life in subtle and multi-layered ways.