What exactly is mindfulness? Turns out there is no one definition. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, speaks of ‘the awareness that arises by paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.’ So what does this mean?
Mindfulness practice involves the intention to pay attention.
In the present moment:
Practising being mindful of the present moment goes against our mind’s tendency to focus on the past or the future. Since this tendency not only results in us missing a lot of important information and precious aspects of our lives, but also makes us vulnerable to mental habits that increase stress and cause unnecessary suffering, developing the ability to pay attention to the present moment enriches our lives in many ways and enhances healing.
Paying attention non-judgmentally means recognising our judgments and evaluations as such, and holding their associated impulses and emotional charges in awareness, rather than automatically being swept up by them.
Acceptance and friendliness:
Mindfulness can be described as the awareness that results from deliberately paying attention to what is arising in and around us, right now, with an attitude of acceptance and friendliness.
However, acceptance in this context doesn’t mean that you approve of what is going on but simply that you acknowledge, ‘this is happening’, rather than trying to screen it out or denying it.
Moreover, in mindfulness practice, this witnessing of what is going on is different from the way a robot or detached scientist may register data. Mindfulness means our intention to pay attention is based on an attitude of caring interest. Learning to bring this caring attitude to ourselves is an important part of the mindfulness journey.
Ultimately, we need to practise and experience mindfulness to get a sense of it.
As you read this, what thoughts and emotions are going through your mind? What are you noticing in your body? Perhaps a sound is distracting you; questions or judgments may be arising; perhaps you are becoming aware of hunger, the hint of a headache, or the breeze against your skin.
We all have the capacity to be mindful. You may be able to recall moments when you were vividly aware of your experience in all its fullness. But for many reasons, some of which have been investigated and explained by neuroscience, we spend a lot of time in a state where we are preoccupied with the past and the future and are only partially aware of the present moment. We may routinely shut out most of our physical experience, for example, and rather than being conscious of our thoughts and emotions, it may often only be afterwards that we realise with regret that we did what we did because we were in the grip of certain assumptions or feelings.
However, the exciting fact is that the human capacity for awareness can be deliberately cultivated through the practice of mindfulness.
The Benefits of Mindfulness
Mindfulness is a way of life that many people have found to be infinitely more satisfying than what they used to do before.
While not a quick-fix solution, the practice of mindfulness enhances health and wellbeing in areas, such as:
Being mindful is particularly important when we are facing stressful situations. Knowing ourselves well, understanding our patterns, and bringing a caring attitude to ourselves helps us find ways of coping that are not available to us when we are overwhelmed by panic or other unhelpful states. The more present we can be in a challenging situation, the better our chances of making wise decisions, rather than reacting in a knee jerk fashion that may make matters even worse.
Mindful awareness is good for our health in several ways. For example:
- Becoming aware of our habitual reactions to stress and of more helpful ways of taking care of our mind and body increases our stress resilience.
- Being more present to our physical experience helps us detect warning signals early and be clearer about what we need and don’t need.
- Developing greater self-awareness and self-acceptance helps us make healthy changes in our lives.
The more mindfulness we develop, the more this will also impact and transform our relationships with other people, for example through:
- Increased awareness of our habitual patterns of relating to others
- Greater clarity regarding our needs and goals
- Enhanced respect and compassion for self and others
- More effective self-care skills that help us be less reactive during difficult interpersonal situations
- Mindfulness of the way we communicate and more effective communication skills
Regular practice of mindfulness may transform the way you work through:
- An increased ability to focus
- Enhanced stress resilience and coping strategies
- More effective communication skills
- Greater clarity about your goals and priorities
Belonging – our relationship with the world:
A widening of our field of awareness through the practice of mindfulness brings with it a whole different perspective on the issue of belonging and connection. Starting with a deepened connection with yourself, your awareness will gradually include more and more of the ways in which you are part of the bigger picture and connected with the world. This awareness may in turn open your horizon with regards to your options for making an impact that reflects your values and for ways of connecting in new and meaningful ways.