“Mindfulness is the act of paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgementally” (Jon Kabat-Zinn)
“Consciously bringing awareness to your here-and-now experience, with openness, interest and receptiveness” (Dr Russ Harris)
Mindfulness as a practice has existed for a long time, practised widely in ancient eastern philosophies such as Taoism and Buddhism. More recently, however, it has been integrated into western psychology and therapies as researchers and practitioners have observed its many benefits for physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.
All humans have thoughts and feelings and most of us will struggle with these at times. It is part of the human condition to get caught up in thoughts, to worry and to remember. This is ok if we only do this for limited times of the day and can bring ourselves back to the present if we need to. However for many of us this becomes a constant state of being. We live our lives in a state of “mindless”ness where we are doing one thing but thinking about something else: re-living old arguments; reflecting on previous conversations or worrying about some future event that is yet to occur. We may spend lots of time thinking about what we want to be doing rather than what we are actually doing. We may be worried about how we will cope with pain in the future without noticing that right now, in the present moment, we are managing just fine. Many of us live our lives constantly distracted and caught up with thoughts and in fact have trained our brains to look for distractions rather than to stay present with our experiences: whether they be pleasurable or uncomfortable.
The main thing that makes mindfulness a challenge for most human beings is that the job of the brain, in particular the neocortex, is to think: to plan, problem-solve and generate thoughts. This is extremely helpful when we need to navigate our way through practical situations such as a maths problem, following a map, or taking actions to ensure our safety (e.g. if there’s a fire in the building where must I exit to stay safe?). However our brains do not simply switch off when this job is done. They continue to plan, problem-solve and analyse, even when we don’t not need or indeed want them to.
Other factors that can make it hard to be mindful:
- The belief that we are more productive when we multi-task
- The belief that time simply “being” is wasted time. We must be “doing” to be effective.
- Increased use of technology and availability of distractions such as having access to social media/the internet on our phones.
- Not noticing when we have been caught up in a thought, memory or daydream
- Enjoying the process of getting caught up in other thoughts
- Lack of skills for dealing with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings as they arise.
- Wanting to avoid pain that exists in the present moment.
So mindless-ness is an issue for most of us but can be especially problematic for some people. What happens when we become overly fixated on judging, analysing or ruminating about ourselves or others? When we are stuck in memories, flashbacks or anxious ruminations about the future? What happens when we no longer view our thoughts as suggestions, ideas or random images and simply accept them as facts? Getting overly caught up in our thoughts and worries can lead to or enhance feelings of stress, anxiety and depression.
That’s where mindfulness practice can be very helpful. Mindfulness is about training yourself to notice your here and now experiences- paying attention to the present moment as it is. Accepting and allowing your here-and-now experience. Trying as best you can to let go of thoughts of the past or worries about the future. You are being mindful when you are fully engaged in the moment: when you notice the depth and quality of the sounds around you; when you pay attention to the taste of your food; when you are truly present in the company of another person, engaged with what they are saying. When we are mindful we can notice thoughts and feelings arising but we do so in a non-judgemental way and, as best we can, we try to not get “taken away” by them. We see our thoughts as mental events rather than facts (e.g. having a thought that you are worthless does not mean that you are worthless). Mindfulness training helps us to learn how to “unhook” from these thoughts and come back to the present moment, over and over. Mindfulness is not about trying to clear your mind or stop thoughts from entering. It is about learning to allow thoughts and feelings to enter and then pass again without getting caught up in them or acting on them unwisely. This requires practise, patience and often support.
Potential benefits of mindfulness training:
- Feeling more present in your life
- Feeling more connected to others around you
- Being more able to notice when you are caught up in ruminations and able to come back to the moment
- Acting out of awareness and consciousness and not out of impulsivity or habit
- Being less driven by painful thoughts and feelings and more by values-based choices
- Learning to separate your experiences from the thoughts you are having about them, which may not be helpful or accurate.
- Connection to a more stable and enduring sense of self
- Increased self-acceptance
- Although mindfulness is not intended to specifically induce relaxation, many people report feeling much calmer and more centred with repeated practice.
Mindfulness training can occur in a number of different ways. You can learn to become mindful when doing daily activities, when dancing, praying, eating, showering or gardening for example. You can practice mindfully following your breath, noticing how the air feels as it enters and leaves your body. Within a therapeutic context, many forms of therapy incorporate mindfulness skills:
- Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT)
- Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)
- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
- Gestalt Therapy
- Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) amongst others.
Usually the therapist or counsellor will assist you to practise mindfulness in the session, either through formal exercises or by drawing your attention to things arising in the therapy space. You will be supported and encouraged to develop mindfulness skills over time, just as you would in the learning of any other new skill. This often starts with as little as 5-10 minutes of practice per day.
If you are interested in learning more about mindfulness please contact Virginia on 0476 674 094 or on Virginia.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Harris, R. (2008). “The Happiness Trap”. London, Little, Brown Book Group.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2013). “Full Catastrophe Living”. New York, Random House USA Inc.
Siegel, D.J. (2009). “Mindsight”. Victoria: Mind Your Brain Inc.