What is mindfulness anyway?

Mindfulness is the ability to be fully aware of what you are doing, as you are doing it. It can be described as a supercharged awareness that is fully directed to the present moment in a non-reactive and non-judgemental way. As such, it is calm, curious and compassionate.

Mindfulness involves thinking about why we want to cultivate this awareness. Intention is important: our intentions are the mental compass guiding all our actions. Changing our everyday awareness into a deeper, more meaningful mindfulness requires attention and practice. This takes time and repetition.

We often become aware of things in the context of minimising physical or psychological distress, but research has shown that over half the unpleasantness of pain, even emotional pain, comes from our mental reaction to it rather than from the pain itself. Awareness alone may not be enough to help us manage this, whereas mindful awareness, or mindfulness, will mean we can meet these experiences in a new, more helpful way.

We all have a natural capacity to be aware of the present moment when we are doing certain things, like moving our bodies, creating something or relating to others. We can also access such awareness easily when engaging in enjoyable activities, such as walking in nature or interacting with animals. These kinds of positive activities hold our attention in the present moment in a ‘pleasant’ way, giving us a brief taste of mindfulness.

However, we often need more training to learn how to stay more fully aware – or mindful – when things are not quite as we want them to be, whether it’s something small, such as a cancelled train, or life’s bigger disappointments, such as a relationship breakdown, serious illness, or bereavement.

Scattered attention has become our dominant mode of being in the 21st century. Some people, whether consciously or not, use distraction as a technique to manage difficult emotional states or challenging situations. For example, ‘workaholics’ often discover through mindfulness that their work has been masking an emptiness, which is exposed when ‘just doing nothing’. Engaging with this can offer a route to creating a more balanced and healthy life. Similarly, reacting needlessly to things we don’t like takes up a huge amount of our internal resources. Whether it’s small irritants, or major obstacles, when you’re not ‘automatically’ reacting, you can harness your brain to think more flexibly and creatively about problems, and as a result end up worrying less and increasing your productivity.

Self-judgement is another habit that often acts as a barrier to mindfulness. ‘Beating ourselves up’ when we make a mistake or let someone down can take us off into a loop of self-recrimination that means we won’t have a chance to see clearly what has happened and learn from it. Stopping this self-criticism is the first step to seeing how we can grow from our mistakes. People with perfectionist tendencies are often rewarded or admired, but these unrelenting standards can have a heavy personal cost when they result in anxiety and depression. Ask yourself when you next see any of these mental patterns: ‘Is this helpful and healthy?’.

As with any training, getting going with mindfulness (a ‘training’ of the mind) requires focus and commitment. But, as familiarity with your body and mind develops, it will get easier. And yet it’s important to remember that there is no fixed destination, no ‘blissed out state’ to be obtained that takes you to an altered state of consciousness. Mindfulness is about developing the quality of your experience, just as it is, every day.

The pace of your progress will be determined by how much priority you give your practice. Basic mindfulness skills can be picked up quite quickly, but more persistence and patience will be required if you want to broaden and deepen this to a mindful-living approach to life. Going beyond basic awareness to become less reactive and judgemental requires perseverance as you will need to see old, unhelpful habits in action many times before you learn to recognise them and are able to do something different.

Most people can benefit from learning to pay more attention and take more care of their thoughts, speech and actions. However, the conscious practice of mindfulness may not suit everyone, or it may not be right for some, right now. Those whose present moment experience is very chaotic or intense, such as the recently bereaved or those in the middle of a major crisis or life event, are advised to go slowly. Paradoxically, though, a time of crisis may also be a time when dramatic transformation is possible. Sometimes it’s in the toughest of times that it becomes clear how old habits are not working, and this can really motivate you to try something radically different. Those with a low tolerance for negative emotions (and perhaps using drugs or alcohol as coping strategies), or with enduring relationship difficulties or trauma are also advised to go slowly with mindfulness. People with perfectionist tendencies and strong inner critics may also struggle (to begin with) to be less judgemental with themselves. With the right support, and a bit of forethought and planning, everyone has the potential to unmask their capacity to live mindfully.

Becoming more tuned-in to our bodies and learning how to release and relax, to simply be, also means that we can feel the full range of emotional states that make us human. We might, for example, acknowledge emotional upset that manifests as physical tension, and then be able to do something about it, making us feel freer and healthier.

With mindfulness we spend less time ‘reacting’ and more time engaging with what is going on in the present moment. The benefit of this is that we get the chance to deal with challenging situations more promptly. A mind that is less reactive will be calmer and more content, even in a crisis. So much human distress comes from the way our minds react to our experiences, rather than the experiences themselves, so reacting less often, less severely will make a huge difference to even an unpleasant situation. Knowing and managing your inner critic in this way allows you to be more vulnerable, connect more with others and thrive no matter how challenging the circumstances. The true benefits of mindfulness are often seen in the inevitable moments when we face adversity. We all draw different cards in life when it comes to the levels of joy and suffering we encounter. However, we all have the capacity to choose how we react or respond to what happens to us.

If you would like to find out more there are many books you could read, one that I particularly like is 'What is Mindfulness', by Tamara Russell.

If you visit The Free Mindfulness Project website you will find free-to-download mindfulness meditation exercises, apps, poetry, images and videos to help you to learn how to become more mindful - http://www.freemindfulness.org/home.http://www.freemindfulness.org/home

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