Does Mindfulness still leave you scratching your head?
The best way to explain Mindfulness is perhaps to explain what it isn’t…
We do plenty of things mindlessly every day, like listening to the news and not taking in a single thing. We are rushing around and don’t notice what is happening around us, we may be driving and don’t remember parts of the drive because our mind is off on a tangent.
Mindfulness is the exact opposite of mindlessness. Mindfulness is about being aware and paying attention intentionally to what we are thinking, feeling and doing. It is about what is happening right now, in the present moment, and not judging. Note that it doesn’t stop the nasty stuff in life (what does right!) but it does give us another way of looking at things; by accepting what is happening we can also react in a less judgemental and critical way; in a more relaxed, kinder way!
Mindfulness has been around for thousands of years. It has its origins in Buddhism, and in the late 1970s Jon Kabat-Zinn, Professor Emeritus of Medicine at the University of Massachusetts, took the religion part out and put the science in. He adapted his mindfulness learnings from studying with Buddhist teachers, into a scientifically based Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course.
His definition of Mindfulness – ‘Mindfulness is the awareness that comes from paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally.’
So, the key principles of mindfulness are awareness on purpose, being fully and actively in the present, and having a non-judgmental outlook or attitude.
Awareness is being aware of what we are doing, of our thoughts, emotions, how we are feeling and behaving, of what is going on. It is using our observing mind, that part of your mind that can observe your thoughts as you are having them. It is seeing ourselves from outside ourselves. It is about paying attention actively and on purpose to something, and not becoming distracted.
Being in the present moment, the now, means we are letting go of thoughts about the past or future that create specific feelings that are not helpful. We don’t have control over things that happened in the past or necessarily over things that may happen in the future, we can however control what we do right now. And note the words ‘we do’, as in ‘what you do’ … there are always some things we don’t have control over, but we do have control over what we do and how we react.
Mindfulness is about accepting things as they are, whether good or bad (because that is what life is guaranteed to keep throwing at us), without judgment. If you accept things as they are, particularly those things you do not have control over, means you can let go of a lot; of stress, of overthinking, and of incorrect or flawed thinking, the latter also causing your own angst and ongoing rumination.
You may have found yourself observing that running commentary in your head, the ones that judges others and circumstances. Accepting that we are not perfect ourselves, that we don’t always need to be right or have control can be very liberating.
Studies have shown that people who practice mindfulness regularly have reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Regularly doing mindfulness practices has also shown to increase brain grey matter, that is the increasing of connections between neurons in the brain, in the areas of learning, memory processes, regulating of our emotions and seeing perspectives. Handy yes!
Mindfulness practices are designed to bring you and your thinking into to the present moment. They allow you to step back from your thoughts and emotions and observe them and help quieten your mind.
Mindfulness practices encourage you to have an ‘anchor’ to return your mind to when working on quietening your mind, like your breath, a word, a body part, an item, or just focusing on the things happening in the present moment. You are encouraged to focus on your anchor, and when your mind wanders off you acknowledge your thoughts (without judgment) and return to your anchor.
An easy mindfulness exercise is directing your mind to what is happening now, in the form of a noticing exercise. Notice two things you can see, pay real attention to them, notice their shape, colour, linger on these things, take them in fully, but don’t judge them. I did this today when I felt a tension headache coming on. I noticed the laser cut wooden bunny leaning against by speaker at work, ok random right, but … after a wee while my shoulders actually dropped an inch! Then, try two things you can hear, and then touch two things, and for good measure add in one thing you can smell. And really notice them, experience them, attentively, take your time. And return to them when you are distracted with other thoughts. Don’t worry if the thoughts come back, it’s all they are: ‘thoughts’, no need to judge them or suppress them, because that usually just makes them louder. Just acknowledge them and take yourself back to your anchor or present moment activity.
Mindfulness takes practice and effort, but you can start by doing a mindfulness exercise for just a few minutes a day. And, ‘All it takes is 10 mindful minutes’ says Andy Puddicombe,, author, speaker and teacher of meditation and mindfulness, in his TED talk.
Weird as it sounds, I always find it easier to relax when I am already relaxed, and apparently that is ‘a thing’. The recommendation is to start mindfulness when you are calm and relaxed, and, when you are familiar with a practice or practices that you enjoy, introduce them at times when you are finding yourself overthinking or stressed or just in need of that little bit of calm.
And, lastly, don’t take things too seriously. Give yourself permission every day to relax, to choose to do something that you enjoy or value, along with the many things you may need to do in a day. Plan an activity you like doing, do some exercise, lose yourself in a good book or catch-up with a friend, play some music to lift you up or relax you. It just takes some practice to actually do this! Above all, know that you can choose to be happy, right now, in this moment, because really, there is no other.
PS well what is Meditation then, I hear you ask? … Meditation (which comes in many forms) is a practice/tool/activity that can help you become more Mindful. Boom.
Finding yourself overthinking, is your mind controlling you? Check out our Worries to Flourish workshop, which is aimed at helping you take control of both your time and thinking, and helps you reflect on what you’d actually like to achieve in life. It includes some mindfulness practices too!