What is Mindfulness?
Clarifying what it is, what it isn't and offering some ideas to try ...
This is simultaneously easy and hard to do. Mindfulness may sound simple but it's one of those things that can only really be experienced. And it’s certainly something that needs practicing - on, I have found, a daily basis.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, the man credited with bringing mindfulness to the West (after developing the ground-breaking Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programme at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in the 1970’s) defines mindfulness as:
“Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
Again this sounds deceptively simple but anyone who has ever tried a mindfulness or meditation practice will know that the nature of the human mind is to wander - also called ‘the monkey mind’. So mindfulness is really attention training; asking your mind to come back to what it is you are focussing on or doing … again, and again, and again.
There is a kindness element to mindfulness also. Practicing being non-judgemental means not labelling. In a way, this is about practicing kindness to self and others. This means that, when your mind wanders from your task at hand (be it mindful breathing, eating, driving), you don’t berate yourself but gently ask your mind to come back to where you want it to be.
So the mantra for mindfulness could be: Notice. Notice. Notice.
Often I talk about what mindfulness isn’t in order to clarify some common misperceptions. Mindfulness is not a religion and it has nothing to do with politics. It’s not a theory and it’s not the same thing as meditation. It’s also not about stopping thinking or zoning out.
And, even though it has its roots in Buddhism, you don’t have to be Buddhist to experience or practice mindfulnesa; a little bit like pizza has its roots in Italy but you don’t have to be Italian to make or eat pizza. (Credit to Amy Saltzman for this analogy.)
Certainly the type of mindfulness I teach is secular (not connected with religious or spiritual matters) and I’m not definately not trying to teach anyone to mediate. Meditation is a formal practice where you (often sit) and focus your attention on one thing - your breathing, a body scan or some other formal meditative focus. Mindfulness is a by-product of a formal meditation practice but you don’t need one of these to live mindfully.
Things to try.
There are many ways to start a mindfulness practice but I often suggest people start with noticing the breath. This is a useful practice because it is something you can do anywhere and anytime - without anyone even knowing. And it has some solid benefits for a frazzled brain which I explain in my post on Why Teach Mindfulness to Kids?
There are two things to remember when practicing mindfulness:
One: Your mind will wander. Bringing it back gently to what you want it to do is the practice of being mindful. Key word: Practice.
It is not how long you can focus on what you are doing that is the key (although increasing the time of your focus is a desirable outcome) - it is the noticing your mind has wandered off (again) and the bringing it back to where you want it to be that is important.
Two: Be gentle on yourself. Practicing mindfulness can feel like trying to stop a runaway train, especially at the start - and at difficult times.
We live in a fast-paced and oftentimes stressful world - and many of us are connected to one device or another almost all of our waking lives - which means training your mind to be where you want it to be can feel near on impossible. There are things in the past that need dissecting or rehashing - and things in the future to plan for or worry about. In difficult moments, it helps me to remember the mantra of 'notice, notice, notice'. This takes the pressure off trying to change anything and just pay attention to the present moment.
Remember: you are not trying to change anything , just to be aware.
So - here are three mindfulness practice to try:
Mindful Breath Awareness is a great place to start - and even though it sounds like it might be easy, if it's your first time it's likely you'll be surprised at how fast your mind wanders. In mindfulness (and brain science), practice makes permanent in terms of brain structure ... so try it daily for at least a few weeks and see what happens. You can start with a short time, 5 minutes or less, and increase the time as needed and able. (Tip:I find using a timer helps rather than sneaking constant peeks at the clock.)
This Mindful Grounding Practice is a good one to have on hand for those times when you are at the end of your tether, overwhelmed or at a loss for what to do. By taking a moment to name three things you can see, smell, hear and feel (silently or out loud, the choice is yours) - and then purposefully breathing - you are grounding yourself in the here and now and can (hopefully!) find a more centred and balanced stance with which to proceed. It's a bit like a circuit breaker but without all the wiring. It can also be a fun practice to do with kids: anywhere, anytime, any place.
This next one is a little different - but I can vouch for how satisfying it is. For anyone who has ever eaten - or drunk - something and not remembered a moment or taste of it, this is for you. My first coffee of the morning is now a lovely little ritual where I sit, appreciate and savour every drop all the way to the bottom of the cup. Take yourself off auto-pilot and give this practice a go with your next hot (or cold) drink - or even something to eat - and relish the pleasure that our sense of taste gives us when we slow things down.
Once you have tried these practices - or ones of your own choosing - try bringing other small moments of mindfulness to your everyday activities: walking, cleaning your teeth, washing the dishes. Once you start to bring awareness to things you wouldn't normally, you are consciously strengthening the muscle of your attention and cultivating your capacity to focus. With this greater awareness can come change, happiness and gratitude. But more on that another time ...