What is Mindfulness?
We've heard of it, maybe we've even tried it, but what does 'mindfulness' actually mean?
Many of us spend our lives rushing around on autopilot without taking a moment to pause and take-in the present. Whether we are dwelling on past events or racing through the week to get to the weekend, it is the present moment that often gets neglected first.
Cue the need for mindfulness!
While fairly new to the West, the concept of mindfulness has existed in Eastern philosophy, religion and culture for thousands of years (you can read more about the history of mindfulness in a future post).
Put simply, mindfulness involves having a sense of awareness and acceptance for the present moment experience. This awareness can be for internal thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations, or for the external environment around us. In all cases, being mindful involves bringing attention to the present moment in a non-judgemental and non-reactive way.
It is the non-reactive nature of mindfulness that can often feel like the most difficult part of any mindfulness-based practice. It seems as soon as we take a moment to be present with ourselves, our minds become a buzz of activity - thoughts and worries vying for our attention like irritating flies, often leading us to the frustrating conclusion that we must be 'doing it wrong'.
In truth, this is perfectly normal! The thing about mindfulness is our reaction - or our lack of overreaction - to these thoughts, feelings and sensations. You can watch this video 'The Fly' for a great visual metaphor!
Instead of labelling present thoughts and sensations as 'good' or 'bad', mindfulness involves approaching them with a neutral sense of interest and acceptance.
Imagine your mind is the sky and your thoughts are the passing clouds. While some clouds may seem nicer than others, all of them eventually pass across the neutral sky. If you notice that a certain thought or sensation just won't go away, then this is still mindfulness and may be a sign that further resolution or help is needed.
Whatever the case, the goal of a mindfulness-based practice is not to 'empty your mind' as many often think, but instead, to observe it just as it is.
Mindfulness can be practiced in a variety of different ways and doesn't have to involve hours of silent mediation.
From being mindful of your breath to focusing on the sensations in your mouth as you eat a raisin (yes, there really a raisin meditation!), moments of mindfulness can come in many forms (you can read more about cultivating mindfulness in a future post).
Whatever it may be, approaching the present moment with our full attention and a sense of curious acceptance has been shown to have many benefits, including:
Decreased anxiety and depression
Decreased stress and worry
Decreased blood pressure and risk of heart disease
Improved sleep quality and quantity (read more about the link between mindfulness and sleep in a future post)
Increased emotion regulation
Improved cognition and memory
Improved sense of connection with others
Increased life satisfaction and happiness
Living in the present moment is easier said than done, but if we can cultivate a little mindfulness into our lives, we will undoubtedly begin to notice the good things that all too often pass us by.
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Germer, C. K. (2013). Mindfulness: What is it? What does it matter?
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2015). Mindfulness. Mindfulness, 6(6), 1481-1483.
Ong, J. C., Ulmer, C. S., & Manber, R. (2012). Improving sleep with mindfulness and acceptance: a metacognitive model of insomnia. Behaviour research and therapy, 50(11), 651-660.
Williams, M., & Penman, D. (2011). Mindfulness: a practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world. Hachette UK.