What actually is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a word which is batted around a lot these days. It’s become a trendy buzzword and you’d be hard pushed to find a wellness magazine or website that doesn’t mention mindfulness in some form on its pages….but its nothing new! Perhaps you have heard mindfulness is good for your health, and you are seeking out some of the benefits you’ve been hearing about. With all of the myriad of ways you might have heard of practicing mindfulness, you might be thinking it’s something that you need, and you might be surprised to hear that you have mindfulness already. That’s right, you have mindfulness already! You were born with it!
John Kabot Zinn, who is one of the founding fathers of the teaching of mindfulness in the West describes the practice as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally”. Take a moment to think back to when you were a baby, or a small child; you lived moment to moment, without worrying about the future or ruminating on the past. You didn’t judge people or experiences; you simply took things as they came and lived in the present …even though you didn’t know it at the time, you were mindful and you didn’t even need to practice then because you simply were, it was your natural state. Can you imagine seeing through the eyes of a small child or a baby now; seeing everything for the first time…noticing everything that comes into your awareness with a gentle, curious and non-judgemental lens like you are experiencing everything for the first time? Sounds fun? This is mindfulness.
Why don’t I feel mindful?
So what’s happened? Where has it gone? The good news is, its still there…the not so good news is that it has been buried…but you can uncover it again, and its not as hard as it may seem; in fact it is completely accessible to you, and enjoyable too, and you can start today.
First let’s understand what’s happened to your mindfulness…
Over time we stat to lose touch with our mindful nature, as our minds and our bodies develop into who we are today; wonderful products of a whole life time of experiences and encounters. Your thoughts and feelings are entirely unique to you; no-one else in the world can experience life like you do and because of the way the mind works, sometimes it feels like we don’t have much control over this. One of the abilities that sets humans apart from other mammals is the ability to think abstractly; we use imagination to create images in our mind of experiences that aren’t actually real, but they feel real! Close your eyes for a moment and imagine a huge bowl of ice cream, with chocolate sauce and sprinkles – did you notice any changes in your body? Perhaps you licked your lips or started to salivate. Thoughts can feel really real; the imaginative mind is so powerful it can make icecream appear out of nowhere!
Why does my mind wander off all of the time?
So the mind can conjure up imagined futures and recall experiences in the past as though they are happening to us now. Memories help us judge situations and apply reason. Imagination helps us create and plan. But we don’t have control over these thoughts and they pop up out of what seems like nowhere…and sometimes they can be unhelpful and less pleasant than ice cream! Did you know the average person has 50,000 and 80,000 thoughts per day? And the vast majority of these are about the past or the future, and when left unchecked tend to be skewed towards being negative, which means we are often distracted from what is going on right now and we lose that present moment baby vision.
The mind grows like a muscle and repeatedly thinking the same types of thoughts, or carrying out the same kinds of behaviours cause thinking habits to form…and since for most of us no-one told us to keep our mindful muscles fit and active, we find it increasingly hard to keep focused on the present moment. Very quickly, the mind becomes stronger in thinking in the past or future and weaker at paying attention to the present moment. The mind is our greatest instrument, when we keep it working with us, but left to its own devices it can become a tyrannous master. Repeatedly left to ruminate on thoughts of the past and we can develop depression, and when the mind is living more in the future we can experience anxiety and worry. Not everyone experiences these kind of thought patterns but most of us will notice times when we miss what’s going on right in front of us because of our monkey minds which jump about so much…
Can you think of a time when you have got to the end of a meal and hardly noticed eating it? Or walked down the road and couldn’t remember anything you saw, or perhaps you’ve read a page of a book and then realised you didn’t actually take in anything on the page….? That’s because your monkey mind is imagining; wandering off to here and there, past and future and not staying with what you are really doing now.
Can mindfulness help me live more in the moment?
The good news is, as the mind is like a muscle, we can re-train it to spend more time in the present moment, which can weaken the habitual thinking in the past and future. We can start to notice more, appreciate more, experience more, and live more in the moment. By practicing mindfulness we can stop worrying so much about what might happen in the future and stop dwelling on the past. Think about it, those types of thoughts are both images in our imagination; they aren’t what’s really real. What’s real is what is happening right now…and mindfulness will help your mind to spend more time in the here and now.
How can I practice mindfulness?
Mindfulness can be applied to any experience or activity; from brushing your teeth to taking a walk. Some people practice mindfulness in a more formal way by meditating; but whether you’re sitting cross legged on the floor or eating your breakfast – the practice is the same. With gentle and non-judgemental curiosity, you pay attention to the experience you are having now. When eating breakfast for example you might pay attention to the taste, texture, colour of your food and sensations in your mouth and body when you eat. If you’re meditating, you might chose to pay attention to your breath and the feeling of air entering and leaving your body. At some point, your mind will wander off (remember this is to be expected because of the incredible and unpredictable ability of our minds to imagine!)…and when you notice your mind wandering off, without judgement you gently bring it back to the moment to start noticing things again. Its like you are the cow boy, and your mind is the bull…it runs off over and over again but each time you throw your lasso and reign it back in…when you remove the rope the bull stays with you for a while and then wanders off again until you notice, and you throw your lasso again and pull the bull back in. Mindfulness is the lasso – it’s your tool to rein your bullish mind back to your moment!
Perhaps you might like to have a go at practicing, to remember what it’s like to use your mindfulness. It’ll only take a minute….
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