The term "Mindfulness" is everywhere? But what does it actually mean?
Date posted: 10 September 2016
The term “Mindfulness” has become a buzzword of recent years and I believe it’s at risk of being mindlessly bandied about.
There’s a plethora of self-help books and Apps which purport to meditation, breathing exercises, visualisation and yoga being the act of mindfulness. Yet mindfulness in itself is none of these techniques and actually each of the above can be conducted mindlessly.
I am not against meditation or any of these exercises and use them myself. However, I believe it is important to understand that they are all a means to an end: to live more mindfully and this means post-meditation too. Moreover, those who are not meditation or yoga fans might be pleased to hear you don’t have to do any of these exercises to become mindful.
So what is mindfulness?
Jon Kabat-Zinn (founder of MBSR: Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) defines it as “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally”. Ellen Langer (Professor of Psychology at Harvard University) puts it in a way that I believe is easier to understand and therefore easier to implement “Mindfulness is actively noticing”. As soon as we are putting our mind to the task of actively noticing then suddenly we are paying attention to our surroundings, our thoughts, our feelings our sensations and in that moment we are in the present.
Using the term “actively noticing” helps us to realise too that actually most of us don’t live mindfully. We are on autopilot most of the time; as we get ready for work, complete our daily chores and routine tasks and take little notice of what is going on within and around us. It is likely that the time we are most mindful is when we are on holiday. It’s when we have the space and time to relax, with no fixed routine and perhaps stimulated by our new surroundings that we begin to actively notice. In so doing we begin to feel more in touch with ourselves, our experiences, and our way of being. This is the state of being mindful and is the time we can feel most alive and fulfilled.
A misconception of mindfulness is that it is about clearing your mind of thoughts. As human beings we have highly active brains and to prevent thinking can feel like an impossible task unless we are highly practiced Zen Masters - I think a lot of people give up on their mediation exercises because they feel they’ve failed the task. Mindfulness is not about emptying our minds of thoughts, but about noticing them. It is about being aware of our thoughts whatever they may be and accepting those thoughts non-judgmentally, even the negative ones, and then letting them drift much like clouds in the sky and choosing which ones to respond to.
But how does mindfulness help?
When we become more aware of our thoughts then we can begin to understand how they impact our feelings and our behaviour. For instance, if when in a store the shop assistant seems to be ignoring your presence you might think “She’s deliberately ignoring me”. This thought will automatically make you feel angry and so you might then be rude to her and walk out the shop. This will probably leave you just as angry because you’ve left without the purchase you wanted. However, if you notice this thought and realise there are other perspectives you may think “She’s concentrating so hard on the task in hand that she hasn’t noticed me”. Your feelings are likely to then be more compassionate toward the shop assistant, and you might simply make some sort of gesture so she notices you. This mindful catching of our negative thought enables us to examine and choose other perspectives and the outcome is very different.
So mindfulness helps us to understand that we can have many thoughts and it is not the thoughts, but the thoughts that we choose to respond to that define us. It enables us to understand that we are free to choose what to think and believe and this puts us back in control of our lives. In turn we respond to situations in a calmer manner and feel less stressed, which benefits our minds, our hearts, our bodies and our souls.
When mindfulness is not helpful
Mindfulness risks being unhelpful if you are suffering with high levels of anxiety, depression or stress because actively noticing all our negative thoughts can be overwhelming. This is when seeking professional counselling or psychotherapy might help.
Indeed, counselling and psychotherapy, certainly from the humanistic tradition (see my article on Simplifying the Minefield of Therapeutic Approaches) shares many of the same goals as mindfulness, but with a professional to help guide you and ensure you take the steps gently and at a pace that suits you with safeguards and techniques for self-care along the way.
If you are interested in becoming more mindful and feel competent to take the journey yourself, then I recommend the following reading:
- Mindfulness by Ellen Langer
- Mindfulness for Beginners, Reclaiming the Present Moment and Your Life by Jon Kabat-Zinn
If you wish to become more mindful, but would like to seek a therapist to help, then I suggest visiting one of following directories to find an appropriate professional:
Again my article on Simplifying the Minefield of Therapeutic Approaches might help you to find the right therapist for you.
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