Everybody's talking about mindfulness, but what is it?

Picture of a man practicing mindfulness
If you take care of the minutes the years take care of themselves.
— Anonymous

What is mindfulness?

In a venue where I run mindfulness retreats there is a painting on the wall of the kitchen with an incredible message for us: "Wherever you are, be there.” For most of us though, much of the time this is not how we experience our lives. Think about your day so far, how much have you really 'been there'?

A number of scientific studies have shown that this is the norm: we spend a large part of our waking hours (around 47%) in more of a trance like state; we could say that we are more mindless then conscious. Let us use an example of driving. We often find ourselves performing the task of driving but not really being there; often arriving at the destination with no awareness of the journey we have just undertaken.

How true is this for you? Like when driving, we perform a largeproportion of our day on  ‘automatic pilot’, which often results in a dulled experience, as we are not aware of what we are experiencing as we experience it. More importantly, what the scientific studies have shown is that when we are in a state of mind wandering, we are often ruminating about events that have happened in the past, or future events (usually around 50% of the time). It is this for this reason that neuroscientists say, “wandering minds are unhappy minds!” In these moments, when we are lost in our negative thoughts, our ‘buttons’ often get pushed and we start to react before we are consciously aware of it, and for some of us this is when we over-react!

In addition, in our modern workplace’s 24 hour 'on' culture with its demands of multitasking, instant messaging, social media and constant connectivity (apparently the average person now looks at their mobile device at least 200 times a day), study after study is showing the negative impact this has on our ability to concentrate and be present in our lives. For example, we now know multi-tasking is a myth - in reality we are simply switching between tasks and in terms of our brain this is an energy inefficient way of operating. So there are many valid reasons why people find it increasing difficult to switch off and concentrate, which can have a negative impact on well-being, relationships and our performance at work.

And this is where mindfulness comes in: mindfulness simply means present moment awareness.  When you are mindful, you know that you are fully here and experiencing your life in this moment. We could therefore call mindfulness an art of conscious living, a practice for fully waking up to this present moment.

Learning mindfulness helps us become aware of how we are experiencing and relating to our lives. It builds our capacity to be present, resilient and move from a reactive state to a more conscious way of responding.

The founder of the ‘Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction’ programme, Jon Kabat-Zinn, describes the practice of mindfulness as “paying attention on purpose in the present moment without judgement,’ and it is through this way of paying attention that we develop present moment awareness.

People often think that mindfulness is all about sitting cross-legged on a cushion and practising meditation. This is a myth: we practice meditation during mindfulness training to cultivate present moment awareness, the ability to concentrate and keep our mind where we intend it to be. However, we can practice being mindful in any activity or period of our day. If the average person sleeps around eight hours a night that means you have 980 minutes of opportunity to practice each day and every day.

Mindfulness myths

Here are some other myths related to mindfulness:

  • It is about learning relaxation exercises – mindfulness is not about relaxing; the exercises and practises you learn are not intended to send you to sleep. They are in a way the opposite - they are intended to ‘wake you up’ to what you are experiencing moment to moment. Often a bi-product of practicing mindfulness is that you will start to experience a calmer state more often, but relaxation is not the intention. It is also common for people to experience tiredness in the initial weeks of training but this is simply them becoming aware of how sleep deprived and tired they really are.
     
  • It is about getting rid of your thoughts – as you start to learn mindfulness, you will become aware that is impossible for us to clear our minds and get rid of our thoughts. As you develop the capacity to concentrate on objects of attention, such as your breathing, you will also develop your ability to become more objective of the thoughts you are having and this will lead to less automatic reactions and less thoughts getting in the way of what you want to do.
     
  • It is about zoning out – mindfulness is not about loosing touch with our reality, it is the exact opposite. We are learning to fully experience our reality in the present moment and become more conscious of how we are responding to life events.
     
  • It is about loosing our passion and dynamism – mindfulness is about being more awake to the experiences you are having and meeting them head on. We are developing deep self-awareness of our reactive patterns and through this awareness, we become more conscious of how we are choosing to respond. For example, in my programmes, leaders often share how they have become more assertive in meetings as a result of developing their present moment awareness of what they are experiencing, what is important to them and the action they should take to achieve the best outcome. So don’t worry...this isn’t about you losing your edge!
     
  • It is a religion – You can trace the origins of mindfulness to Buddhism, where there is over 2,500 years of the study of the mind, but this is secular training.
     
  • It is just about finding the time to do this – I hear this many times when I am training people in mindfulness. The truth is you will never find the time, you will have to make the time for the formal practices and as we have discussed so far, this is a moment-to-moment activity so you can practice being mindful at any point during your day.

A mindfulness exercise you can try right now

So building on the last point, let us tune into this present moment to show the practical application of mindfulness to your experience right now. The psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach developed a practice of pausing during our day as a way of enabling us to wake up to the present moment more and more.

The pause helps us to reconnect with the present moment, especially when we are caught up in our usual modes of doing, doing more and doing it faster! It reconnects us with being here right now. You could use this when you are undertaking any activity – reading, doing emails, eating etc.

So stop and pause right now, sit comfortably and allow your eyes to close. Take a few deep breaths and with each out breath let go of any worries or thoughts about what you are going to do next. Scan the body and see if you are holding tension anywhere and if there is, soften and release those parts of the body as best as you can.

Now, notice what you experience as you inhabit the pause:

  • What sensations are you aware of in your body?
  • How are you feeling?
  • What is on your mind?
  • How are you breathing? Where are you breathing from?
  • Do you feel anxious or restless as you try to step out of your mental stories?
  • Do you feel pulled to resume your activity?
  • Can you simply allow, for this moment, whatever is happening inside you?

Try this practice a few times today, maybe, during transition points of your day, e.g. before or after breaks or lunch or before you get out of your car and walk in the front door of your home.