What Is Mindfulness?

If you’re living under a rock, you may not have heard the term ‘mindfulness’ yet. But for most of us the hype around mindfulness is filling up our news feeds with promises of better health and quality of life. So what is mindfulness and why is everyone so excited about it?

Mindfulness touts many benefits, such as increasing productivity, increasing immune function, and relieving chronic pain. Just a quick read over the mindfulness literature can convince you it is a worthwhile pursuit.

What Is Mindfulness

Mindfulness means being in the present moment. While it is often linked with meditation, you don’t have to be meditating to practice mindfulness. You can walk mindfully, eat mindfully, speak mindfully, etc. Seems simple, right? But how to we actually stay in the present moment. There are a few guidelines or ‘rules’ to help practice mindfulness. They are:

- Paying attention

- Directing focus

- Beginners mind

- Non- judgement

- Non- striving

Paying Attention

What’s that you say? You know how to pay attention? But do you really… When is the last time you asked someone their name and didn’t listen to the answer? Looked at your phone for the time and then immediately forgot? Mindfulness is about really paying attention to what is happening in each moment. When you ask someone their name, the only thing in the world that matters to you is their name. Whether you are discovering a cure for cancer or watering your neighbours plants, what you are doing, at that moment is what your mind should also focus on. Often, while we are doing daily tasks like getting dressed or cooking dinner, our minds are somewhere else. Paying attention in the world of mindfulness doesn’t mean that you pay enough attention not to burn dinner, it means that you are focusing completely on making dinner, rather than thinking about all the other things you need to do afterwards.  This is harder than it seems which brings us to our next point:

Directing Focus

Paying attention takes time to cultivate. It’s rare to decide one day that you would like to live in the moment and then seize to be distracted by anything ever again. Directing your focus involves starting to become more aware of when your attention starts to wander. When this happens it’s no biggie, remember that it happens to everyone. Meditating or mindfulness is not about clearing your mind, but about choosing to direct your focus to something else. If you ask someone their name and notice your mind wander to what you are cooking for dinner that night. Acknowledge that thought, choose to focus back on the person, and ask them to repeat their name with a determination to give them your complete attention. awarer focus is the act of paying attention.

What is mindfulness?

Photo by Clint https://www.flickr.com/photos/clint_lalonde/

Beginners Mind

Do you remember the first time you tried chocolate? How about the first time you threw a ball or learned how to draw? Do you remember how different those experiences were to how you now do those things? Eating our favourite foods or participating in our favourite hobbies comes so easy to us now that we don’t always experience it fully. When practicing mindfulness, we try to experience each moment as if it is the first time it is happening. If you have a child, you know how, as children are learning, they can throw their complete focus into things like getting dressed, eating, tying their shoes, or packing their school bag. Next time you sit down to a meal, imagine it is the first time you are trying each food. Notice how the entire meal changes. You can apply this to any task to your day, and suddenly mundane things will become much more interesting. Practicing a beginners mind helps you pay attention to each moment.

Non-Judgement

This applies not only to judging others but judging yourself and experiences as well. It is hard to appreciate experiences when we are constantly evaluating them. Hoping for good weather diminishes your chances of enjoying splashing through puddles in the rain. Judging experiences takes away from what is actually happening in the current moment. The adjectives “good” or “bad” don’t really describe anything about the situation. For example, a piece of cake doesn’t taste “good”. It might taste sweet or sugary, it might fizzle on your tongue or melt in your mouth, or it may prompt your gag reflex. Paying attention to the real taste of the cake helps you become more aware. It also enriches your experiences and helps you understand them better. Many people struggle with this, as we are taught to judge from a young age. Try practicing non-judgement with the people around you and with your day to day experiences. Instead of saying the weather is bad, try changing the story in your head. Is it really windy out? Is the cold making your ears hurt? Is the rain soaking through your coat? And what does it feel like to go inside after? Do your ears slowly defrost? Do the dry clothes feel soft and warm? Judging takes a lot of energies, and when the judgements are negative can add a lot of negativity to your day. Try changing the story you tell yourself about things. They don’t need to be great or terrible, they are what they are.

Non-Striving

This can be a tricky one to understand, yet I think it is one of the most important principles of mindfulness goal setting. I wish all goal setting took non-striving into account! What non-striving means is that we place more importance on the process than on the results. For example, in mindfulness you do not strive or set a goal to become healthy, to run a marathon, or to get your dream job. You set as a goal to cook healthier meals, run/walk three times a week, and set aside time to write a cover letter. We know that we can’t control the outcomes of our actions, or of our lives, and yet that does not stop us from trying. All the time. This is a fruitless endeavour that can destroy confidence and happiness. Set goals for things you can control, and be happy in achieving that. Be happy that you are eating healthy and feeding your body. If as a result you lose weight, that’s great! If you don’t, that’s also great! All you can do is control your actions, so set your goals accordingly.

We can’t will ourselves to heal from illness. We can’t force our bodies to run marathons. We can’t make anyone hire us. But we can control what we choose to do, for example choosing healthier meals, or making an intention to practice running, even if it’s only for a few minutes at a time. Setting goals in this way also allows you to enjoy the process. You can enjoy preparing a healthy meal, without fantasising about losing weight, and can enjoy a stroll through the park without criticising the time it takes you to do it.

Photo by Kenley https://www.flickr.com/photos/kenleyneufeld/

Photo by Kenley https://www.flickr.com/photos/kenleyneufeld/

Try It!

Mindfulness is 99% practice and 1% theory. So if you are really interested in understanding mindfulness, the best thing you can do is give it a try!

If you haven’t guessed from my examples in the this article, I love eating. So one of my favourite mindfulness exercises is mindful eating! Try this mindful eating exercise from the University Of West Virginia . All you need is one raisin.

Holding

First, take a raisin and hold it in the palm of your hand or between your finger and thumb. Focusing on it, imagine that you’ve just dropped in from Mars and have never seen an object like this before in your life.

Seeing

Take time to really see it; gaze at the raisin with care and full attention. Let your eyes explore every part of it, examining the highlights where the light shines, the darker hollows, the folds and ridges, and any asymmetries or unique features.

Touching

Turn the raisin over between your fingers, exploring its texture, maybe with your eyes closed if that enhances your sense of touch.

Smelling

Holding the raisin beneath your nose, with each inhalation drink in any smell, aroma, or fragrance that may arise, noticing as you do this anything interesting that may be happening in your mouth or stomach.

Placing

Now slowly bring the raisin up to your lips, noticing how your hand and arm know exactly how and where to position it. Gently place the object in the mouth, without chewing, noticing how it gets into the mouth in the first place. Spend a few moments exploring the sensations of having it in your mouth, exploring it with your tongue.

Tasting

When you are ready, prepare to chew the raisin, noticing how and where it needs to be for chewing. Then, very consciously, take one or two bites ito it and notice what happens in the aftermath, experiencing any waves of taste that emanate from it as you continue chewing. Without swallowing yet, notice the bare sensations of taste and texture in the mouth and how these may change over time, moment by moment, as well as any changes in the object itself.

Swallowing

When you feel ready to swallow the raisin, see if you can first detect the intention to swallow as it comes up, so that even this is experienced consciously before you actually swallow the raisin. Following Finally, see if you can feel what is left of the raisin moving down into your stomach, and sense how the body as a whole is feeling after completing this exercise in mindful eating

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