Mindfulness is like personal fitness training: Growth comes from overcoming resistance. (With the added benefit that you don't always need to shower afterwards)
"Much Ado About (almost) Nothing"
"I still get those flashes of self-doubt but I know how to handle them:
I acknowledge the negative thoughts and let them slide by, focusing on the moment … Mindfulness helps me process pain and emotions. It lets me focus on what's really important. It helps me turn down the volume in my brain…
"Imagine how handy that is for me in the middle of a grand slam championship match" - Novak Djokovic, in conversation with Kevin Mitchell of the Guardian, 6 September, 2013
We spend much of our waking lives existing on 'autopilot'…
… We hardly notice, sometimes, what it is we're thinking, saying or doing.
Whether it's negotiating busy and unpredictable traffic while driving a car, or eating a meal in front of the TV and hardly paying attention to either, or finding ourselves staring at a webpage which has nothing whatsoever to do with the Google search we began five minutes earlier, we tend to lead lives that lack a certain connectedness.
You might say we're rather skillful at being Mind-less.
But there's another skill worth acquiring.
Basically, being mindful is an ongoing learning about how to pay attention in the present moment, without evaluation or judgment; it's using your conscious awareness and directing your atention to observe and only observe.
There are different aspects to Mindfulness. Sometimes it can happen automatcally. We've all been struck by the beauty of a sunset or a piece of music, or become completely absorbed playing a game with someone. In those moments, you lose your sense of yourself and are just in the flow of the moment — no judgment, just being and experiencing. It's just as easy, unfortunately, to get into a similar flow, but one of anxiety or anger, and allow yourself to be whipped up in fear or anger, too.
Mindfulness means becoming more aware and more in your experience, paying attention to the details of the world you exist in now and your inner feelings and thoughts as they emerge in your mind. How many of us, for example, when anxious or angry, actually stop and pay attention to where this feeling is in our bodies, to what our voice sounds like, to the part of our mind that is now issuing the instructions to our thoughts and bodies, to our primary thoughts and fears? How often do we stand back and practise observing what is actually happening in our minds? Mostly, we don't; our brain patterns just 'do their thing'.
"Mindfulness is the idea of suspending one's thoughts, not buying into them, seeing them for what they are. It's about bringing an intentional awareness to thoughts and feelings and examining deliberately and dispassionately, so as not to get carried away by them…
“… not looking, or finding, or trying, or thinking, but just being. Mindfulness is about paying attention to stuff”
Mindfulness, then, means learning how to change this being caught in the automatic-ness, by applying the art of non-resistance, rather than forcing. Mindfulness is about deliberately using one's attention to create brain states in which patterns in our brains can be stimulated and networks of brain cells can be developed that are conducive to calming the mind and developing soothing compassion. So, mindfulness is a way of understanding 'attention'.
Mindfulness is also about clarity of observation. For instance, suppose you're going to eat a hamburger. How would you do this mindfully?
Kiera Van Gelder, author of The Buddha & the Borderline provides an example of someone paying attention to the sensations of doing just that:
"…the Big Mac, all warm inside the wrapper, made her mouth water, and how the special sauce dribbled down her chin when she bit into it…the touch of the soft brown bun against the roof of her mouth, the motion of her jaw as she brought her teeth together, and how a lump of Big Mac slid down her throat."
Here there's no judgment, there's only the experience of interaction with the burger. This is mindful attention — being in the activity rather than distracted from it by other thoughts, and exploring all aspects of the activity to the full.
If you were simply to eat the burger without mindfulness, your mind would almost certainly wander. But in mindfulness, we learn to notice the distraction — and then gently and kindly bring our minds back on task and into focus.
Mindfulness is important because most of our lives are spent doing one thing and thinking about something else, and we're never fully in the moment.
We can use mindfulness in many different ways. For example, while eating that burger, or perhaps something more nourishing, you might focus your attention on the taste and texture of the food or, while out walking, really focus on your stride: notice how your feet lift and fall in coordinated action; how a foot lands from heel to toe as it hits the ground; how your arms move and your breathing flows with the action. In mindfulness, you can focus on the thought: "I am walking".
The point about this is that when we're depressed, worried or preoccupied, we have a tendency to withdraw from the world of the senses and from being fully 'in the moment' and instead become focused on our thoughts about tomorrow or yesterday, or our feelings of heaviness or the butterflies and anxiety or dread.
There is strong evidence to suggest that learning to be mindful can help depression because it lifts us away from overfocusing on the negative and gives the brain a chance to rest from being bombarded by negative thoughts.
Proven benefits of Mindfulness
Regular Mindfulness practice:
- makes you happier and more content
- leads to longer, healthier lives
- decreases, anxiety, depression and irritability
- improves memory and mental stamina
- leads to better and more fulfilling relationships
- reduces hypertension and chronic stress
- reduces chronic pain
- reduces impact of cancer
- relieves drug and alcohol dependence
- bolsters immune system to fight off colds, flu and other diseases
Evidence for all ten, above, provided and cited in Mark Williams and Danny Penman, Mindfulness, A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World (Chapter 1), published by Little Brown, 2011
Practising mindfulness regularly, as a way to bring yourself more fully alive in the present moment can be one of the most valuable skills to develop a more compassionate self.
So, have fun, explore different facets of mindful meditation and make it part of your life.