What is Mindfulness?
This is difficult to explain in words as mindfulness can only really be understood through the experience of it. However, many people have described mindfulness as the process of bringing attention to what is happening in our lives as it is happening, doing this by purposefully paying attention to what is going on in body, mind and the world around us without overly judging it as good or bad. The way we pay attention is important too; we aim to do this by observing what is happening without being lost in it or criticising it or ourselves. For example, watching our tendency for judging the “rightness” or “wrongness” of our experience, rather it just simply is how it is right now.
This can be quite tricky to do at first that’s why we need to practice quite a bit so we can cultivate mindfulness. Then, as we become more orientated to the mindful way of being, we are able to catch more moments as they are happening. Being mindful might seem tricky in the modern world with 24/7 reacting and this leads to a very fractionated attention and the myth of multitasking.
Using an everyday example of standing in a supermarket queue – we can have all sorts of thinking and judgements here – about what others have in their trollies?; why the cashier is taking so long?; did I respond to Sally’s text earlier?; what was that thing on FB I saw earlier and wanted to check out?;I should have stood in another line because that one is moving faster; I have a million things to do before the end of the day/picking up the kids; I feel so tired;…ah the chattering of our unmindful minds.
What to do instead? PAUSE and take a mindful moment here by feeling your feet on the floor, noticing the breath in the belly – ah you are here in the moment and now in the body, not so lost in wandering thoughts. You might start to notice the body softening with shoulders dropping, jaw unclenching, hands ungripping the trolley bar…a sense of easing slightly might occur..or you might notice lots of body tension, but by pausing constant thought stream you can stop adding to the tension. All this leads to a clearer mind and calmer and less tense body.
All too often we are living in the past, rehashing it, or in the future, rehearsing it; so we miss actually being living our lives right now! We are also all too good at reacting automatically to situations and regretting it, rather than responding skilfully. The good news is that the capacity for mindful awareness is already within us, we are born with it and practicing mindfulness re-opens us up to this. For example, consciously choosing to bring awareness to our breathing whilst we are breathing, being aware of walking when we are walking, and as we watch the sun setting and the sky’s ever changing colours and what it arises in us, really being present with this as its happening by bringing our wandering minds back to the present moment again and again and again. In this experiential way of mindfulness we shift from the automatic pilot of ‘doing’ to simply being active participants in our experience.
Of course, it’s not only the pleasant or neutral experiences we bring awareness to; bringing awareness to the more difficult times can be enormously helpful, although initially counter-intuitive. By learning to gently turn towards our more difficult thoughts, sensations and emotions and be in the present with them we can learn of their changing nature, give them more space and to let go of our story about them or simply ‘let them be’ and they do pass. This may lead to a ‘freeing up’ and seeing things somewhat differently, perhaps to feeling less stuck, or to a sense of having more choices in how to respond, more strength and confidence.
Mindfulness can be cultivated in a number of ways, formally and informally – for example, scanning the body for sensations in the present moment, being mindful of each breath or mindful walking or even mindfully eating. You can learn this through using many of the mindful apps that are available these days, or you can attend a course, such as the ones run by MindfulnessNZ. These practices and how to develop mindfulness are guided by the highly trained facilitator and downloads are supplied for practice at home as well as additional support provided throughout the course.