Asking for a definition of mindfulness is a bit like asking, “What does a strawberry taste like?” or “What does your favourite piece of music sound like”? Definitions cannot capture the experience of tasting or listening. They can only give us an idea of what the actual experience is like. And each experiences is unique to each individual, mine might not be like yours and it might be different in the morning and the evening.
Definitions aim to approximate the experience and put it into concepts that we can relate to. With that in mind let’s begin our exploration of mindfulness by looking at two popular working definitions:
Mindfulness means paying attention, in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally – writes Jon Kabat-Zinn (1994), founder of the Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction program (MBSR).
Mindfulness is the willingness and capacity to be equally present with all events and experiences with discernment, curiosity and kindness – this is how Christina Feldman (2012) puts it.
So mindfulness is about awareness but not just any kind of awareness. For example, if I ask you to pay attention to your left foot right now you might think “the shoe is uncomfortable”, or “my right foot is bigger than my left foot”.
In mindfulness you learn to pay openhearted attention to your experience as it arises in your awareness. By focussing on your left foot you start to notice sensations just as they are. As such you may first become aware of the contact of your foot with a sock or a shoe and then of internal sensations like a tingling, buzzing, itching, cold, warmth or a numbness. You may notice a change in these sensations. It takes time to develop this kind of sustained attention to experience as it arises in awareness. And that’s not all.
We often want things to be different than they actually are. In mindfulness you learn to pay attention deliberately, in the present moment, to how things are rather than how you wish them to be. Instead of worrying about the future or re-thinking and regretting the past over and over we learn to ground ourselves in the present moment and cultivate kindness and compassion towards our experience whether it is pleasant or unpleasant. Yes, this is much easier said than done.
Why would I want to learn to do that, you may ask?
The single most important argument for why you want to develop your mindfulness skills is because right now and right here is the only moment in which you have a choice about how to respond to what is happening.
You may have noticed that we live in a fast paced, multitasking world that fosters “mindlessness” or “going on automatic pilot”. Time is a sought after commodity. Just trying to keep up with life whilst juggling work, home, social commitments and finances can be anxiety and stress provoking or make us feel depressed. It is easy to become lost in automatic patterns of thinking, feeling and behaviour.
Mindfulness will not change life circumstances but it may help you to find a wiser relationship to how you approach your experience. As you learn to recognise thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations as they arise choice becomes available. Using your experience as information system the possibility arises to step away from unconscious automatic mental, emotional and somatic reactions to difficulties and stress. As we learn to tune into our minds, hearts and bodies new responses can emerge. Mindfulness creates space, changing impulsive reactions to thoughtful responses.
As we learn to recognise when we are running an automatic pattern we learn to pause and be present. Instead of feeling at the mercy of things because we take thoughts and feelings for facts, we can realise that they are actually mental events over which we do have a choice to respond however strong their grip is.
Mindfulness is said to be a 2,600 years old Buddhist core practice. However, people in every culture around the world have recognised the wisdom that lies in compassionate, present-moment awareness. Over the past 30 years scientists have researched mindfulness extensively showing that regular practice fosters physical, emotional and mental health and wellbeing.
The formal and informal practices entail focussing on the body, breath, movement and interaction and benefits are manifold. Here are a few:
- Increasing presence and body awarenss
- Fostering compassion and kindness towards yourself and others
- Recognise habitual patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving
- Reducing stress and anxiety and building stress resilience
- Stimulating focus and attention
- Adopting a less critical, tight view
- Enhancing creativity and gaining clarity
- Making more attuned decisions
- Finding more flexible responses
- Become more flexible with inevitable change
- Balancing our problem solving attitude and cultivate a more nourishing way of living
- Strengthening the immune system
Finding a better way to cope with stress is relevant for all of us in everyday life, be it at home with our family and friends or at work. It can help us become better parents, friends, students, leaders.
Mindfulness finds ample clinical application (MBSR, MBCT etc.) for its therapeutic benefits such as stress reduction, anxiety, depression, chronic pain, eating disorders, addiction, parenting/childbirth. Specially developed programs are available for mindful leaders, mindfulness in schools etc.
Feldman, C. (2012) http://www.exeter-mindfulness-network.org/about-what-ismindfulness.php
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994) Wherever you go, there you are. New York
I want to learn mindfulness!
Please check my website or email me for upcoming course dates.
I also teach Mindfulness to teenagers at schools according to the .b curriculum and Mindful Schools program.
The most important thing is to find out what is the most important thing.
– Shunryu Suzuki