There’s been a lot of talk about mindfulness lately, about how it helps us to be happier and more in touch with ourselves, and how more and more people are doing it. But what do we mean when we talk about mindfulness?
So What The Heck Is Mindfulness?
The Oxford dictionary defines mindfulness as “the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something.” One refinement it offers is “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.”
Most meditators define mindfulness as being aware of present moment experience in a non-reactive, non-judgmental way.
I should emphasize that mindfulness is a capacity that must be practiced and cultivated. Almost no one can be mindful all the time, and simply knowing what mindfulness is and how to practice it will not make you mindful, any more than reading all about swimming will make you a good swimmer. You have to get in the water!!
I think of mindfulness as a psychological practice, a workout for the mind, if you will. Some people think that by the time we’re adults, the circuits of our mind, or our brain, are hard-wired. But neuroscientists have discovered that this long-held belief is wrong. They now talk about “neuroplasticity,” which is the brain’s ability to create new neural connections and patterns. As one of my mindfulness teachers likes to say, “what we fire, we wire!”
The Benefits of Mindfulness
Studies show that among the many techniques for re-shaping our brain, mindfulness is amazingly effective in many different ways. Our mind becomes stronger, able to focus attention better and hold things in “working memory” longer. Stronger working memory means we can be interrupted and be able to go back to what we were doing without forgetting so much. Mindfulness improves “executive function,” which is our ability to organize thoughts and activities, prioritize tasks, manage time efficiently, and make decisions.
Studies also show that practicing mindfulness reduces stress and negative emotions like anxiety and despair and increases positive emotions like joy and contentment. It even increases kindness and compassion. From a spiritual perspective, cultivating kindness and compassion are key goals of mindfulness. The surprising thing is that even the secular practice of mindfulness achieves these results.
The other thing that mindfulness improves is our ability to know ourselves and the world around us. When we are mindful, we are more focused and less subject to misperception. We realize that our thoughts and feelings are only thoughts and feelings. They are not the truth!! When we think “I have to get out of here” or “if I fail that test, I’m dead,” we have the space in our mind to take a step back and ask ourselves “are you sure?” We may see that the only reason we think we have to leave is because of a fear that was unconsciously triggered. When we see what’s really going on, we realize we are in no danger. We are masters of the situation, not slaves to our thoughts and feelings.
Where To Start
The starting point for practicing mindfulness is sitting meditation, because for most people that’s the easiest place from which to watch our body and mind. Sitting meditation allows us to charge up our mindfulness batteries. In time, we can be mindful in activities that are more and more challenging.
Our level of mindfulness is always dependent on what’s going on inside and around us in any given moment. We cannot control how mindful we are in the present moment, but we can cultivate mindfulness so that it’s more and more likely that we can be the master of any given moment.
When people first start meditating, first start watching their mind, usually the thing they notice is how wild and crazy their mind is. It’s a stream of consciousness that seems to have a mind of its own! Many people are quite disconcerted that they have so little control over their mind, so little ability to prevent it from wandering. But that’s the human condition. When you see what’s going on, you also see the tremendous potential of training your mind.
You start to become more aware of the impact of your thoughts, speech and actions on both yourself and others. You see when you’re hurting yourself and, over time, you hurt yourself less. You also see that when you hurt others, you don’t feel good. And when you help others, you feel great! That’s why mindfulness practice inevitably leads to an increase in kindness and compassion. When you experience the visceral results of your actions, you see that your happiness is linked to the happiness of those around you.
It’s not an all or nothing thing, by any stretch. Even after I see my reactions and their impact, I don’t just stop reacting. But I have noticed that, slowly, slowly, I am changing. I am going in a good direction. Ain’t life grand?
Laurie Arron practices mindfulness in the tradition of Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, and is currently a facilitator with the meditation group True Peace Toronto. He has worked in the fields of business, law, political advocacy and green energy. Follow his writings on his blog
- What is mindfulness? (mindfulmod.com)
- Need Help Quieting Your Mind? (alwayswellwithin.com)
- Mindfulness: a Listening Exercise (martimacgibbon.wordpress.com)
- Meditation: A Simple Way to Manage Stress (massageenvycentralfl.wordpress.com)
- 02/23/12 Day 4: Relieving Stress and Anxiety with Present Moment Awareness (myoprahlessons.com)
- How to Stay Focused in a World of Distractions (mashable.com)