The question I am asked most often when I tell people that I teach mindfulness is ‘What is it exactly?’
There are many interpretations of what mindfulness is. It is difficult if not impossible to define it as it means different things to different people. Many people practise mindfulness and perhaps call it something else – like fishing, swimming, painting, playing sport. When we are ‘in the zone’ whilst engaged in these activities, we are practising mindfulness. We are in the present moment, focused and paying attention to what we are doing without being distracted. The word ‘mindfulness’ is often misused and misunderstood. Some people think mindfulness is about lying down and relaxing. Some people think it is meditation and some people think it is about being calm all the time. And yes, this is all partly true. However mindfulness is much more than these descriptions. It is not something that we do but more a way of being that can bring more calm and more mastery to our lives. It helps us to be present and less carried away by worrying about the future or rehashing the past. It helps us to re-find the joy in life and to be able to be with difficulties without falling apart. Mindfulness does not stop us from being stressed but it helps us to relate to it differently. It helps us to manage it and get perspective. When we practice mindfulness we create more space in our lives which allows us to step out of our habitual reactions and respond to life with more wisdom. One of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definitions of mindfulness is ‘Paying attention to what is happening as it is happening as if your life depended on it which of course it does.’ This emphasises that mindfulness is about being present to what is happening right now because this is where life happens. If we miss this moment we miss out on life. Life doesn’t happen in the past or the future. It only happens in the present moment. When we learn how to come back to the present moment we build up a strength, a stability and a resilience. We begin to thrive rather than survive.
Rick Hanson coined the phrase that the mind is like Velcro for the negative and Teflon for the positive. When we begin to practise mindfulness we start to redress this negativity bias. We start to savour the positive by being present to it, soaking it up, weaving it into the fabric of who we are and in so doing we turn positive events into positive experiences. We take care of difficult emotions rather than suppress them and we feel more solid and robust.
Mindfulness is also about spending time with yourself and learning a little bit about who that is. getting to know yourself better, recognising your qualities, patterns of behaviour and getting some mastery over your own life and how you live it.
So how do we cultivate this? What do we have to do? Mindfulness practice consists of both formal and informal practices. The formal practices are sitting meditation, the body scan practice and mindful movement. Engaging in any of these practices is an opportunity to rest the mind, to drop out of thinking and into being mode. This is a much more restful place to be and it is where we build our awareness (our mindfulness) This is where we get in touch with our emotions and learn how to manage them. In sitting meditation we might pay attention to the breath and the body or to conditions of happiness that exist in our life, our mindstate or difficult emotions. In the body scan we practise scanning our attention through the body. We begin to relate to our body differently by fostering the attitudes of acceptance and non-judgement. Mindful movement might be a yoga practice or some kind of gentle exercise. Again the practice of coming into the body allows us to access ‘being mode’ and frees us from the endless flow of thoughts and overthinking.
The informal practices are walking, eating, and basically any other activity that we can bring our attention to. Mindfulness is always mindfulness of something. We can make drinking a cup of tea a mindfulness practice by taking the time to savour it and engage our senses, to notice our breathing and feel our bodies. We can make very mundane chores into mindfulness practices. Washing the dishes can become a mindfulness practice when we bring our full attention to it and become aware of the sound, smells and textures. We notice the temperature of the water, the colours, the patterns of food, the sound of the scrubber as we wash the dishes. Rather than it being an unpleasant chore we can use it as an opportunity to practise mindfulness.
Mindfulness is a practice and as with any practice it requires a gentle, patient persistence. If we bring these three qualities to our mindfulness practice we will begin to see great benefits and our life will transform.
“If we miss out on this present moment we miss our appointment with life and that is very serious.” Thich Nhat Hanh