It’s perhaps the biggest buzzword of the 21st century after Bitcoin. While Bitcoin is yet to prove its worth to the world despite its hype, mindfulness is already slowly but surely changing the lives of millions, including my own. So begs the question: what exactly is mindfulness?
Before we look at what this increasingly common word ‘mindfulness’ is, it is worth highlighting a few things that it isn’t.
While mindfulness is often practised during periods of meditation, it doesn’t have to be. You don’t have to be sat cross-legged on a pillow to practice mindfulness, you can be walking around, doing the dishes or any sort of mundane activity, really. All you need for mindfulness is your mind and that can be accessed at any time.
Mindfulness is not synonymous with joy, happiness, stress-relief, good vibes or whatever else Pinterest and pretty Instagram accounts are spouting at you. While it can definitely make you a joyous, happier, less-stressed person, mindfulness is just a practice, not some form of emotional state.
Being mindful is not a matter of thinking more clearly about experience; it is the act of experiencing more clearly, including the arising of thoughts themselves which is itself an experience that you have.
There are many other common myths about mindfulness but hopefully, the majority of them will be dispelled in the next paragraph.
Mindfulness at a glance
Mindfulness is simply a state of clear, nonjudgmental, and undistracted attention to the contents of consciousness, good and bad.
That’s basically it.
The contents of consciousness include things like:
The body (breathing, changes in posture, sensations)
Feelings/emotions (pleasant or unpleasant, neutral)
The mind (moods, attitudes)
Objects of the mind (emotions, tranquility, unease)
Mindfulness is consciously feeling the sensations in your body when you are sat down or standing up. It is letting sounds in your environment arise and then vanish again all on their own. It is carefully watching your breath as it moves in and out, again and again. It is being aware of thoughts popping into your head and then watching them disappear just as quickly and as randomly as they appeared.
Basic. Boring. Beautiful.
Why should I care about mindfulness?
The goal of mindfulness isn’t to reach some woo-woo enlightened state, it isn’t to sit and bore yourself to death or fall asleep. The main purpose isn’t even to reduce stress or make you feel better in the moment; it is to make discoveries about your own mind and your own life.
We don’t often notice it, but we are talking to ourselves all of the time. Mindfulness aims to interrupt the continuous conversation that we have with ourselves and create just a little bit of space.
There is a constant stream of dialogue in our minds about what just happened, what is about to happen, the interpretation of experiences, the brooding over problems. This all creates a weird veil of cloud over the now.
Mindfulness helps to break you out of this trance, especially when practised during normal day to day activities that you tend to have no recollection of.
It eventually begins to seem that you are awakening from the dream of your own life, again and again.
The common analogy used is that it is a similar experience to being fully immersed in a movie and then suddenly becoming aware of your surroundings: the other people watching the movie, the big screen that has light projected onto it, your arm uncomfortably resting on the chair. Nothing about your environment has changed, but your perception has shifted completely.
Most of us spend every waking moment lost in the movie of our lives, and practising mindfulness is the secret key to breaking the spell.
Mindfulness gives you the superhuman ability of being able to stop reflexively grasping at pleasant experiences and running from unpleasant ones. You can begin to see unpleasant states of anger, fear and anxiety in their most basic, physiological form rather than attaching meaning to them as we tend to do.
Watching the uncomfortable feeling in the stomach arise, the rise in blood pressure and then seeing it go again. Often just as swiftly as it arose.
Emotions are extremely fleeting; have you ever been angry or ecstatic or worried for a full day, with no moment of rest? The truth is that when the next thought or experience arises, as it inevitably does, our emotions change accordingly. Becoming angry or upset or happy again is falsely manufactured by you replaying the memory, letting your thoughts once more wander into the past. Letting the emotions go as quickly as they come is possible, with a bit of practice.
Mindfulness is a form of watching. Watching what is going on in your own body, your own mind, in your physical environment, in the behaviours of others.
It is always now, but strangely enough, it is not often that we live there, or should I say, here. From my experience and from those of many others, mindfulness might just help you find your way back.
Due to the growing popularity of mindfulness, there is a tonne of resources to either get you started with mindfulness or to keep improving your practice.
However, amid the vast quantity, there are a couple of very high-quality resources I would love to direct you towards.
Headspace is my favourite app out there. This is especially suited to beginners and combines a selection of cute cartoons, simple meditations that focus on mindfulness, videos and one of the most user-friendly interfaces I have ever experienced on an app. If you are looking for a sign or marker for a place to start your mindfulness/simple meditation journey, let this be it.
I also highly recommend the world-renowned neuroscientist, philosopher and top meditator Sam Harris’ app and book, both titled ‘Waking Up’. Much of this post is based on the things that I have read in his book. His resources are recommended to anyone that is interested in taking a more scientific and philosophical take on mindfulness and the nature of consciousness.
Sam also provides a basic, guided meditation to get you started and gives you a little taster below of his meditation and mindfulness methods. If you are looking for some basic instructions about what a mindfulness practice entails, this is a great place to start:
- Sit comfortably, with your spine erect, either in chair or cross-legged on a cushion.
- Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and feel the points of contact between your body and the chair or floor. Notice the sensations associated with sitting—feelings of pressure, warmth, tingling, vibration, etc.
- Gradually become aware of the process of breathing. Pay attention to wherever you feel the breath most clearly—either at the nostrils, or in the rising and falling your abdomen.
- Allow your attention to rest in the mere sensation of breathing. (There is no need to control your breath. Just let it come and go naturally.)
- Every time your mind wanders in thought, gently return it to the sensation of breathing.
- As you focus on the breath, you will notice that other perceptions and sensations continue to appear: sounds, feelings in the body, emotions, etc. Simply notice these phenomena as they emerge in the field of awareness, and then return to the sensation of breathing.
- The moment you observe that you have been lost in thought, notice the present thought itself as an object of consciousness. Then return your attention to the breath—or to whatever sounds or sensations arise in the next moment.
- Continue in this way until you can merely witness all objects of consciousness—sights, sounds, sensations, emotions, and even thoughts themselves—as they arise and pass away.
- Don’t fall.
If this mindful stuff sounds appealing to you and you prefer to read about these sorts of things, a few books that will feed your interest are:
Mindfulness in Plain English, by Bhante Gunaratana
The Experience of Insight, by Joseph Goldstein
Wherever You Go, There You Are, by Jon Kabat-Zinn.