What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the act of redirecting our attention to what we are actually experiencing in the present moment (with our senses). We do this without trying to fix, control or judge what we are experiencing. In other words; rather than being ‘in our heads’ we are present to our experience of the here-and-now.
Of course we are always in the here-and-now – we can’t really be anywhere else can we? Yet mental activity can make it seem like the here-and-now is not important and that thinking things through is the only sensible way to get on in life. Yes, planning is vital but to plan at the expense of being conscious of the current moment is a price too high and can ultimately lead to burn-out.
Have you ever noticed your life slipping by in haze, your children growing up too fast, holidays over too quickly and years or even decades lost? Often, this happens because we weren’t really conscious of the present moment at the time. When we’re on holiday, do we spend our time ruminated about this and that instead enjoying the warmth of the sun on our skin or savouring the tastes of an exotic meal. When we go out for a walk – do we simply loose ourselves in thought rather than notice that rare bird in the tree or the strange fungus on the tree stump? How much of life slips by while we squander our attention on what the boss said or didn’t say or the way our partner looked at us or what happened in EastEnders last night?
Happiness and joy is mostly found in the here-and-now, rarely in the fantasy world of thinking. That isn’t to say being in the here-and-now is always joyous, but it is far more likely to be than when we are only aware of the mind that likes to exaggerate the negative (why do you think newspapers carry mostly bad news?). The mind loves it – the drama, being right about stuff, getting one over someone, plotting, manipulating – come on, we are all guilty of it at some time in our lives – we’re human after all.
Did you know that your mind loves pain and suffering? Not real pain mind you, but the mental ‘anguish’ of a sorry story of woe! Of course bad things happen and we should allow ourselves to grieve or feel sad when appropriate, but our minds can be seduced into become addicted to negativity, and suffering which always devalues the joy of being alive in the here-and-now.
Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness:
“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way;
in the present moment, and
Kabat-Zinn, is a famous teacher of mindfulness meditation and the founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.
Paying attention “on purpose”
First of all, mindfulness involves paying attention “on purpose”, a conscious directing of our awareness. When we are purposefully aware of eating for example, we are consciously being aware of the process of eating. We’re deliberately notice the sensations and our responses to those sensations. We’re noticing the mind wandering, and when it does wander we purposefully bring our attention back to the sensations of eating.
When we’re eating unmindfully we may in theory be aware of what we’re doing, but we’re probably thinking about a hundred and one other things at the same time, and we may also be watching TV, talking, or reading — or even all three! So a very small part of our awareness is absorbed with eating, and we may be only barely aware of the physical sensations and even less aware of that we are in fact thinking and even less aware of our emotions. Men suffer from ‘being in the head’ more than women, so it is not surprising that men are often less emotionally intelligent than women.
Because we’re only dimly aware of our thoughts, they wander in an unrestricted way. There’s no conscious attempt to bring our attention back to our eating. There’s no purposefulness.
This purposefulness is a very important part of mindfulness. Having the purpose of staying with our experience, whether that’s the breath, or a particular emotion, or something as simple as eating, means that we are actively being aware of present moment.
Why does it matter to be aware of the present moment? It’s important because the joy of life can only be fully appreciated if you are aware of it in the here-and-now. Problems can be solved more easily, creative thinking lives in the present moment, our brains work far more efficiently if they are free from ‘maxing out’ on excessive unhelpful thinking. Also, you are far more, vaster, bigger more wonderful than anything your mind can limit you too. If you think you are this or that – you are wrong, utterly wrong. No words are adequate to describe the wonder that is you. You are a vast and spacious possibility yet your thinking would have you believe otherwise – and whilst you give over all your attention to thinking – then what your mind concludes about you will probably be true!
Paying attention “in the present moment”
Left to itself the mind wanders through all kinds of thoughts — including thoughts expressing anger, craving, depression, revenge, self-pity, etc. As we indulge in these kinds of thoughts we reinforce those emotions in our hearts and cause ourselves to suffer. Mostly these thoughts are about the past or future. The past no longer exists. The future is just a fantasy until it happens. The one moment we actually can experience — the present moment — is the one we seem to avoid the most.
So in mindfulness we’re concerned with noticing what’s going on right now. That doesn’t mean we can no longer think about the past or future, but when we do so we do so mindfully, so that we’re aware that right now we’re thinking about the past or future.
However in meditation, we are concerned with what’s arising in the present moment. When thoughts about the past or future take us away from our present moment experience we notice this and gently re-direct our attention back to now.
By purposefully redirecting our awareness away from thoughts and towards the “anchor” of the present moment, we decrease the effect on our lives and we create instead a space of freedom where calmness and contentment can grow.
Paying attention “non-judgmentally”
Mindfulness is an emotionally non-reactive state. We don’t judge that this experience is good and that one is bad. Or if we do make those judgements we simply notice them and let go of them. We don’t get upset because we’re experiencing something we don’t want to be experiencing or because we’re not experiencing what we would rather be experiencing. We simply accept whatever arises. We observe it mindfully. We notice it arising, passing through us, and ceasing to exist.
Whether it’s a pleasant experience or a painful experience we treat it the same way.
Cognitively, mindfulness is aware that certain experiences are pleasant and some are unpleasant, but on an emotional level we simply don’t react. We call this “equanimity” — stillness and balance of mind.
Guided Mindfulness Meditation: A Complete Guided Mindfulness Meditation Program from Jon Kabat-Zinn