So what is this thing called mindfulness? If you’ve read any self-help books or lifestyle articles over the last couple of years, chances are you’ve come across this word. Even my son in Year 4 has done a mindfulness exercise at school!
Mindfulness is not a new concept; it has been practised for over 2500 years to help alleviate human suffering. In recent decades, its benefits have been proven by a multitude of research trials and it is now a component of many psychological therapies.
Mindfulness can be misrepresented as being a form of meditation or distraction, or purely a spiritual exercise. It is none of these things. Mindfulness is defined as actively bringing awareness to your here-and-now experience, with openness, receptiveness and interest. Whether our present moment experience is joyous, painful or neutral, by being mindful we can connect with the world directly rather than being caught up in our own thoughts.
Our thinking mind tends to hijack the present. It worries about the future, reminds us of difficulties in our past, makes assumptions, and is often judgemental. Of course, making plans for the future and learning from the past is crucial, but if our mind spends all – or most of its time – elsewhere, we are the ones who miss out. Infants and toddlers are great role models for mindfulness. A baby will observe his or own hand in wonder and curiosity, or be absorbed in experiencing the texture, smell and taste of food. This enhances and characterises their experience of that moment in time.
So why don’t we engage in mindfulness more often, or more naturally? There are amy reasons, including the pressure to multitask in order to get everything done; advances in technology such that we can choose to be elsewhere via our phone at any or every moment; and (a big one), the avoidance of discomfort or pain.
Perhaps the most challenging times to be mindful are those that involve emotional pain. It is fortunate then, that numerous mindfulness practices have been developed and we can begin with the easier ones. For example, try spending a minute or two directing your attention to your current surroundings:
- What are five sounds that you can hear?
- Then allow your eyes to notice four objects around you.
- Now use your sense of touch to be aware of how three items feel, perhaps their texture or temperature.
If your mind wanders away from the present moment (What am I going to say to my boss tomorrow?) or makes a judgement (I can’t do this!), just notice that and gently guide your awareness back to your surroundings. A wandering mind is normal.
If you engage in this activity once a day, your ability to focus your attention will improve, you will likely experience some positive feeling from the exercise, and you are setting the foundation for becoming more skilled at other mindfulness practices that can help alleviate distress and improve wellbeing.