Are you wondering what all the fuss is about when you hear the word mindfulness? Have you been told you should be more “mindful” but aren’t really sure what that means? If you answered yes, then let me help!
Let’s jump straight in. What exactly is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a state of awareness that involves paying attention to the present moment with openness, curiosity and flexibility.
In addition to engaging fully with the present moment, this definition, from one of the top pioneers in the field of mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn, highlights the accompanying elements that represent a more accurately encompassing definition of mindfulness. These are focused attention, non-judgement and flexibility.
Mindfulness is NOT:
- about achieving relaxation or enlightenment
- a way of stopping your thoughts
- a form of positive thinking or
- a concentration exercise.
It is so much more!
Often mindfulness is mistaken or mis-taught as simply developing the skill of concentration. The ability to focus your mind or sustain your attention on something, is certainly an important part of mindfulness, however on its own, it is purely the skill of concentration. What distinguishes mindfulness from merely being a concentration technique, is that alongside our ability to focus our mind on an object of attention, we also aim to observe this object with an open-mind, and free of judgement. Trying to remain objective means not evaluating the object of attention by analysing the experience or being overly judgemental.
On top of this, being mindful means we are strengthening our ability to hold back our usual reflex response to an object or situation by being flexible in how we react. Usually, we react so quickly to things in our environment that we don’t consciously choose our reaction. If we can be flexible in our reactions it means we are in full control of them rather than being controlled by old, outdated reflex responses that may not necessarily be helpful to us.
Our aim when being mindful is to try and remain as focused on our present environment as possible, with a flexible, non-judgemental attitude. This includes our inner world of thoughts, feelings, sensations, as well as our outer world of what we can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch, and how we interpret the people and objects around us. We want to stay focused on the here and now, rather than get lost in thinking about the past or future (which unfortunately is what we let our mind do most of the time!)
So let’s get clear on this understanding of mindfulness with an example. Let’s say your partner or a friend says something to you that you interpret as disrespectful during a conversation or heated discussion. As soon as this happens, your usual reflex response may be to snap back with a rude or defensive comment, as your mind makes judgements of the person or situation, with internal dialogue along the lines of “this is the rudest thing someone has EVER said to me,” or “they don’t care about me at ALL, they must hate me or not respect me", etc. Before you have had time to think (which means be aware of your reaction and how you feel deep down in the moment) you continue to lash out and say things you might reconsider looking back.
If, instead, you are able to bring mindful awareness to this interaction, it might go a little like this. You would start by not only paying full attention to what the person is saying, but also noticing their body language, and what you can see, hear, feel, and smell around you. In addition, you would be trying to withhold your judgements by staying neutral to what is happening as well as trying to withhold your reflex response to lash back. Instead you’d have space to see the situation for what it is, mainly someone expressing words that have no meaning expect that which we attach to them, and from that place, choose a response that you prefer, which would no doubt dramatically change the interaction with that person.
Now surely developing the skill of being less-judgemental and less reactive to our environment would have a positive impact on our relationships, health, or work. But, you might be asking, what’s wrong with letting our minds be judgemental? Or why is it so bad to react to situations with reflex responses? Certainly, there are moments when it is helpful and it does keep us safe if we react to our environment in a reflexive way. Most of the time though, we react from a place of unconscious, autopilot mode with a learned behaviour that may not actually be beneficial to us in the long run.
Mindfulness helps us reconnect with who we really are at our core, underneath the learned behaviours and limiting beliefs or unhelpful thinking patterns we have developed over the years. It allows us to see our world with fresh, non-judgemental eyes, and develop a more flexible approach to how we want to interact with our world. Most of our suffering or problems stem from our over-judgemental controlling mind, and our tendency for high reactivity.
Cultivating mindfulness does require dedication and courage to challenge yourself into a new, more present way of being. As you commit to a regular practice, you begin to experience the benefits of mastering your mind, the chief determinant of your life experience.
This, in addition to a host of other benefits can only be understood when practised and experienced.
Ready to give it try it yourself?
Pause wherever you are right now and watch your mind for a minute or two. Imagine your mind has been enlarged on a giant movie screen in front of you, and you are sitting below watching all your thoughts pass by on the screen.
As you watch what’s happening in your mind, see if you can observe it in an objective, neutral way without trying to control your thinking. If you get distracted or your mind drags you away with a memory or story, just watch this happen. Let it do its thing and come back to watching objectively.
Now if this is the first time you have ever spent time watching your mind, you might be a bit shocked (don’t worry you’re not alone, as everyone’s mind is just as messy and busy!) You might feel frustrated that your mind won’t calm down or wish you could get away from your mind rather than watch it. See if you can notice your reaction and perhaps the urge to give up or control your mind to make it more pleasant. Whatever occurs is useful information to you, because it provides you with deeper insight into yourself and your unique mind.
Mindfulness is a powerful and valuable skill that can positively impact our experience of life in more ways than we realise. It is more than just something we do every now and then; it can also become a way of living. One of the great things about mindfulness is that its impact is limitless.
The power to have a calm, stress-free life really does lie in your hands, once you have mindfulness as your secret weapon. It can help you reconnect with who you are, change or improve any behaviour, deepen your connections with others, find more stillness and peace within, achieve goals, and so much more.
I hope this article helped you gain a clear understanding of what mindfulness is all about!
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