Mindfulness: What, Why and How?
Mindfulness seems to have taken the world by storm. These days most people have heard of some or all of these: mindfulness, mindful mediation, mindful living, mindful walking, mindful parenting, mindful eating.
But what actually is mindfulness?
Is it meditation? Or different from meditation?
Why would you practice mindfulness?
And how do you do it?
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way – on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally. It’s an awareness process, not a thinking process. In short, mindfulness is a state of non-judgemental awareness of what is happening in the present moment. This includes an awareness of one’s thoughts, feelings, and senses, and this awareness allows us to live in the present moment. Most of the time, our minds are not in the present moment. We often spend time worrying about things in the future that are as yet unknown, or things that could go wrong. Or our minds reach back in time raising our anxiety if we feel guilty or regretful about something we have said or done, or worry about something that has happened.
Mindfulness is a different way of living and being in the world compared to what we normally do because typically, instead of looking at what is actually there in front of us, we tend to see life through a screen. This ‘screen’ is made up of thoughts and concepts that we can mistake for reality. We also tend to get caught up in thoughts and actions. Getting caught up in thoughts looks like being caught in ‘thought streams’, daydreaming, ruminating, or getting stuck on a worry. Getting caught up in actions is about pursuing pleasure, achievement, and gratification. These aren’t bad things to strive for – the problem is when we do it on automatic pilot, use it as avoidance, and are not connected to our experience of life. If we are always chasing that next thing without connecting in the moment because we are avoiding pain, discomfort, fears and unpleasantness….that’s when we are not living mindfully, and some would say not truly living.
“Mindfulness wakes us up to the fact that our lives unfold only in moments. If we are not fully present for many of those moments, we may not only miss what is most valuable in our lives, but also fail to realise the richness and the depth of our possibilities for growth and transformation.”
What can mindfulness help with?
Mindfulness may be an ancient eastern practice, but it is incredibly relevant for our lives today and has attracted a lot of research including the use of brain imaging to show the positive benefits. It’s a way to combat the pull of a world that promotes business and bombards us with information. It helps with stress, worry and anxiety, improves relationships, helps with cravings and addictions, and improves focus and concentration.
Mindfulness is also included as a part of different therapeutic approaches including Dialectical Behaviour Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
What is involved in mindfulness?
Mindfulness involves two components - awareness and acceptance. In a state of mindfulness, awareness is of thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations as they happen. This awareness is not to stop thinking or clear your mind – it is to become aware of your thoughts and feelings instead of becoming lost in them. This observer position in mindfulness creates distance from distressing emotional experiences and limits the intensity and escalation of the feeling, essentially slowing down the reactive process through the activation of a different region of the brain.
The acceptance component of mindfulness involves a non-judgemental observation of the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that you notice. For example, if you notice a feeling of worry, simply say to yourself, “I notice that I am feeling worried”. There’s no need to judge or change the feeling. In fact, struggling against thoughts can sometimes give them more power and make them more stuck.
It is important to keep a non-judgement attitude towards your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations…and how you are doing with your mindfulness practice. As you are practicing mindful presence, be kind and compassionate with yourself. Judging yourself for how you are practicing will release neurochemicals that activate the body’s stress response, but kindness to self physiologically soothes the body and brain. Did you know that even if you are in a difficult situation, simply adding the resonance of kindness changes your neurochemicals?
Being mindful helps us to train our attention. Our minds wander about 50% of the time, but every time we practice mindfulness, we are exercising our attention ‘muscle’. This means we are becoming mentally fitter. This is how we learn to take more control over our focus of attention and choose what we focus on …rather than passively allowing our attention to be dominated by things we find distressing that take us away from the present moment. Mindfulness is described as choosing and learning to control our focus of attention.
Mindfulness on a continuum.
Mindfulness exists on a continuum - from formal meditation to attention to breath to mindful presence in daily activities. If formal meditation isn’t for you, try doing one activity a day that you connect to with mindful presence e.g., if you are washing the dishes feel the warmth of the water and pay focused attention to what you are doing, if you take a walk notice the movement of your body and notice what’s in your surroundings, if playing with your kids take a moment to really connect to the activity and the child.
Typically, mindfulness practices involve attention to breath because this helps to cultivate awareness of your experience in the present moment. There are some great free Apps and Websites to guide you with mindfulness practices e.g., Smiling Mind. Smiling Mind even caters to a range of ages including kids and teens.
Mindfulness and distress.
With practise in using mindfulness, it can be used even in times of intense distress. Mindfulness in times of distress involves becoming mindful of the actual experience as an observer, using mindful breathing, focussing attention on the breathing, listening to the distressing thought mindfully, recognising them as merely thoughts, breathing with them, allowing them to happen without believing or arguing with them. Mindful breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system helping the body to calm down.
Jon Kabat-Zinn uses the example of waves to help explain mindfulness … “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf”.
Will you step into mindfulness and learn to surf emotions?
Will you use mindfulness to inhabit your life more fully?
If you’d like help and support with mindfulness practices, you can consult with a helping professional. Visit your GP for a referral or visit https://psychology.org.au/find-a-psychologist
And you might be interested in these resources:
• Beuadoin, M. (2012). The Skill-ionaire in Every Child: Boosting Children’s Socio-Emotional Skills Using the Latest in Brain Research.
• Brewer, J. (2017). The Craving Mind: From Cigarettes to Smart Phones to Love - Why We Get Hooked and How We Can Break Bad Habits.
• Gunaratana, B. (2019) Mindfulness in Plain English.
• Hanh, T. (1996). The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation.
• Hanh, T. (2008). Mindful Movements: Ten exercises for Wellbeing.
• Hanh, T. (2013). Planting Seeds with Music and Songs: Practicing Mindfulness with Children.
• Harris, R. (2009). ACT Made Simple.
• Snel, E. (2013). Sitting Still Like a Frog.
• Shapiro, S. (2020). Good Morning, I Love You.
Dr Leonie White - Clinical Family Therapist and Psychologist
Helping people grow, connect and thrive in life’s unique journey.
Please note - this article is educational in nature and does not constitute therapy advice.
Please seek help from a professional if you require support.
Photo 2: Vecteezy Pro Liscence