In the past few years, we are increasingly hearing more about the benefits of 'mindfulness'. There often are a lot of fads in the field of popular psychology – however, for numerous reasons, mindfulness is a practice that, due to its numerous benefits is likely going to stay with us.
Mindfulness can be summed up in two simple words - being present. Many people have advocated its practice to discrete periods, such as half an hour daily. However, there's no reason why we can't aspire to be mindful as 'a way of life', and as illustrated below, the more we do it, the greater the rewards.
So, what is 'mindfulness'? There are a few essential points about this practice.
1. Paying Attention. When we are mindful, as the name suggests we are paying attention, we are focused.
2. The Present Moment. However, mindfulness channels this awareness to the present moment, the now. We neither are dwelling on the past, nor worried about the future.
3. Being 'Unhooked'. While being focused on the moment, we don't get 'hooked' by the object of our intended point of attention. By this, it means we don't fixate on a thought, feeling, a sensation or whatever we are observing with our five senses. Rather, the aim of mindfulness is to observe a thought passing, and see it as 'just a thought'.
The reason for this is otherwise the thought may lead to other thoughts and feelings. When we 'unhooked' from these, we see thoughts and feelings for what they are – not fact, but subjective interpretations. Rather, our object is to notice each thought, each feeling as – just that, thoughts and feelings, not the truth.
4. We are non-judgemental. Whether we choose to channel our attention on one of our five senses, or on the stream of thoughts and feelings that come and go, we try not to judge or label these as 'good' or 'bad'. We see them for just what they are - thoughts, feelings or bodily sensations or what we notice though the five senses.
There are many ways to practice mindfulness.
1. We can choose to focus our awareness internally, with eyes closed, observing the passing stream of consciousness without attachment. If we choose to be mindful of thoughts and feelings, it is suggested we view each thought or feeling as you may a view a leaf floating down the river – just passing down the stream, and away.
Another suggestion is to say to one's self “I am having the thought X” or even better “ I am noticing myself having the thought X”. By inserting 'having” and “noticing myself having”, it has the effect of creating distance between yourself and the thought. It helps us to see the thought as just that, not necessary truth, and thus helps creates feelings of calmness and objectivity.
2. We may choose to be mindful of bodily sensations, what we feel in our toes, feet, legs and so on throughout our body, just observing and describing. We may describe the temperature, any feelings of discomfort or tension, or focus on systematically contracting and relaxing each muscle group from head to toe.
3. We can choose to be mindful of the breath, noticing the coolness of the air as it enters the nostrils, and how, upon exhalation, the breath feels warmer. We notice our rib cage expanding and then our tummy, breathing in, and relaxing upon breathing out.
4. We may choose to focus what we see – with our five senses – sight, hearing, sound, touch, and taste. Sometimes, we may expand mindful awareness to incorporate more than one of our five senses – we may focus on a sight, and gradually expand awareness to what we are also hearing. Or any other combination of our five senses.
There are many benefits to the regular practice of mindfulness.
1. Mental Health Benefits. When we are externally focused on our observations through our five senses, we cannot be introspective at the same time. When internally focused, it is natural that thoughts will arise, because that is the nature of the mind. If these thoughts are negative, unpleasant emotions often arise – anxiety and depression, for example. We forget these thoughts are just that, 'thoughts', not reality. We are what we call 'hooked' or attached to them. So just by focusing awareness on one or more of our five external senses, we decrease unnecessary suffering.
If we do choose to channel our awareness to thoughts and feelings, if we see them as
the 'stream of consciousness' and watch them pass with openness and curiosity rather than being 'hooked' by them, we do not experience the cascade of thoughts and feelings that flow from the original one. Negative thoughts and feelings can arise when we take these thoughts and feelings literally, as if they are true, and represent fact.
Mental health benefits that flow from this practice are decreased depression, anxiety, improved sleep and greater experiences of peace and calmness.
2. Greater Effectiveness. When we are in the present, not worried about the future, or
ruminating about the past, we are able to channel our attention more effectively to whatever we happen to be engaged in, whether it be work, household chores, or any task. Our concentration naturally improves.
3. Improved Interpersonal Relationships. When we focus our full awareness on listening to another person, we are not distracted by what we our going to say next, or on some other thought that may be completely unrelated to the conversation at all. This includes not checking our phone or computer while engaged in conversation. The other person will naturally become aware that we are engaged with what they are saying, as well as subtleties like facial expressions – because we can respond appropriately, with words and emotional responses. We also interrupt less, because we are not preoccupied with what we are going to say. When we respond, we are mindful about an appropriate reply.
4. Physical Health Benefits. There are documented studies supporting physical health benefits from regular mindfulness practice. These probably stem from an improvement in mental health – lower blood pressure and improved sleep to name just two.
5. We Notice More. We can miss so many beautiful and meaningful moments because our attention is elsewhere – nature, such as that beautiful sunset, flowers, our children and pets. When we begin to practice paying attention, we realise just how much we missed when we were unaware.
6. We React Less. One of the key elements of mindfulness is being non-judgemental not labelling something as 'good” or “bad'. We accept reality for what it is. When caught in a traffic jam, or the receiving end of someone's rudeness on the road, we observe, we are aware of what we are feeling, and try to breathe through it. We try not to become caught up in the cascade of reactive thoughts and feelings. Of course, this is not always easier, but a mindful approach to unpleasant events helps us to take a step back from strong emotions that can stem a need to control our present, fears about the repercussions of the present. Of course these are valid – mindfulness is not about saying that things that aren't negative won't happen. It's about recognising that some things we can't control anyway, so our suffering decreases.
In conclusion, the practice of being aware in the present improves our quality of life, and our interactions with our loved ones. We can't change the past, or predict the future, although we can make plans of course about what is in our control. But by not dwelling on the past or aspects of the future that may be only predicted to a degree, we increase acceptance and peace, and decrease unnecessary suffering.