Us humans tend to naturally run on autopilot. We tend to go about our daily routines by default, meaning we don’t consciously take in what we’re doing, seeing and experiencing. Mindfulness aims to go against this way of thinking and being. Mindfulness is the simple human ability to be fully present, conscious of where we are and what we’re doing. It’s not the easiest practice to take on or explain, but its benefits have proven to aid millions across the globe.
What is mindfulness?
The term “mindfulness” is a translation of the Pali term sati, which is a vital element of Buddhism. In Buddhism, the ultimate goal of mindfulness is to reach enlightenment aka complete freedom from suffering. This is achieved by developing self-awareness and insight through various mindfulness-based techniques such as meditation. Yet the recent popularity of mindfulness in the West is generally considered to have been initiated by Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn. Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program, describes mindfulness as “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.” In simpler terms, mindfulness is the practice of being aware and acceptive of whatever is happening to you in the present moment, both internally and in the external world around you. It revolves around the belief that living in the moment leads to enhanced happiness and frees us from living on “autopilot.”
What doesn’t mindfulness include?
It may be easier to comprehend mindfulness by understanding what it isn’t. Examples of what mindfulness does not consist of include:
- Failing to listen to someone attentively
- Getting too focused on goals and losing touch with your present life
- Getting lost in your thoughts and feelings
- Being preoccupied with the future or the past
- Running on autopilot (doing what you normally do without any real conscious involvement) (i.e. driving to work and having no memory of large parts of the trip or unknowingly eating an entire bag of potato chips when you only planned on having a couple chips)
- Being overemotional or having spontaneous emotional outbursts
- Daydreaming or thinking of other things when doing a specific task
- Doing several things at once rather than focusing on one thing at a time
- Distracting yourself with things like eating, alcohol, drugs, work etc.
Why practice mindfulness?
Us humans have the ability to possess mindfulness but it’s more easily available if we practice it on a daily basis. Many people practice mindfulness for varied reasons depending on their lifestyle and induvial make-up but most reap the same benefits. When you practice mindfulness, you no longer dwell on the past or agonise about the future. Instead, you become acceptive of the present and all that life may throw at you, allowing you to enjoy every minute moment of life as it happens.
Many who practice mindfulness claim they now:
- Savour the pleasures of life
- Become fully engaged in activities
- Better deal with challenges and adverse events
- Become less worried about the future
- Agonise less over the past
- Become less concerned with success and self-esteem
- Form better connections with others
Mindfulness does all this by:
- Clearing your head and slowing down your thoughts
- Making you more aware of yourself, your body and external environment
- Helping you better manage your thoughts and emotions
- Creating more fulfilling interpersonal interactions
- Slowing down your nervous system
- Aiding sleep
- Helping with stress, depression and anxiety
- Building new neural pathways and networks in the brain
- Boosting creativity
A significant mindfulness technique is meditation, an ancient technique that science has said to:
- Reshape your relationship with mental and physical pain
- Decrease stress
- Help you give full attention when communicating with others and performing tasks
- Focus your mind
- Diminish brain chatter
Can I practice mindfulness?
Mindfulness is not an obscure or eccentric practice. Anyone can practice mindfulness. It’s non-exclusive and does not require you to “change who you are.” Whether you’re a mother, father, corporate professional, senior citizen, sufferer of mental illness, teacher or somewhere in-between, mindfulness can aid us all in fully experiencing life’s pleasures, whilst becoming more effective in handling life’s challenges. Mindfulness, however, is not about “fixing” an individual and “stopping their thoughts”. Rather, it’s about enhancing an individual’s life and reducing the negative brain chatter and emotional responses we resort to when faced with adversity.
How to practice mindfulness
While mindfulness might appear simple, it’s not certainly not easy. You will only reap the benefits if you make time every day to keep practicing it. Luckily, you can practice this simple mindfulness exercise anywhere – on a park bench, at home, at school – as long as you’re comfortable.
- Find a serene and quiet place to sit.
- Set a time limit. A short time, such as 5 or 10 minutes, is good for beginners.
- Ensure you’re steady and in a position you can stay comfortably in for a while. If on a cushion, crossing your legs comfortably in front of you can help. If on a chair, rest your feet on the floor. Place your hands and arms where they feel most natural. Having your eyes open or closed is up to you.
- Straighten your upper body but don’t stiffen.
- Bring your attention to the physical sensation of breathing: the air moving through your nose or mouth, the rising and falling of your stomach, or your chest.
- Naturally, your mind will wander to other places and away from the sensation of your breath. Once you’ve become aware of this—whether it be in a few seconds, a minute or five minutes—return your attention back to your breath. Use the sensation of your breath as an anchor to the present moment. The more you practice this, the more likely you’ll be able to do it again and again.
- Be sympathetic towards your wandering thoughts. This is normal so don’t criticise yourself. Notice when these judgements arise, make a mental note of them, and let them pass. Recognise the impressions these judgements might leave in your body, and let those pass too. Repeatedly come back to your breath without expectation or criticism.
- When your time is up (or when you are ready), gently lift your gaze. Open your eyes if you had them closed. Slowly bring your awareness back to your external environment. Take note of the sounds around you. Take note of how your body feels. Take note of your thoughts and emotions.