In its simplest form, Mindfulness is a state of conscious, open awareness.
Having practiced meditation and mindful awareness for more than fifteen years, I have developed ways in which to embody its key concepts in simple, easy to use exercises and activities.
I like to think of Mindfulness as a broad canvass. Full of potential, colour, richness and offering the opportunity of self-reflection, self-awareness, greater emotional resilience, calmness, focus, and resolve. From short, inspiring taster ideas and exercises, to deep, long-term meditation practice, there's something for anyone who wants to explore the possibility of presence, peace and change.
Mindfulness is also an umbrella term for the many and diverse ways based on meditation techniques of being in the present. "A set of principles, attitudes and practices."
Consequently, and sometimes confusingly, the term Mindfulness represents different things to different people. Yet there are family resemblances between many of the rituals, methods and ways of talking about it embodied by the different approaches.
Perhaps the best-known proponent of modern, secular Mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn, says that it means "paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally." That "Wherever You Go, There You Are".
So, we could say that the term 'Mindfulness' represents a state of being and describes the practices that are said to help you achieve that state.
Attitudes of Mindfulness include acceptance, a state you may often hear referred to as "beginner's mind" (see below) and the act of letting go. Meditations include the "body scan" and "awareness of breath". And principles involve such as that of the connection between mind and body, the profound impact of "flow state", and the benefits of self-reflection of development of the self and our relationship with others and the world around us.
Growing evidence suggests we can derive enormous personal and therapeutic benefits by adopting the attitudes and regularly practicing the rituals and meditations within Mindfulness. Enabling us to have a fuller relationship with the potential of the present moment and developing our awareness of what we do, what we think and what we feel in the here and now. And with that, we can break the habits of mind and body that restrict us and instead create those that nourish, sustain and expand our horizons.
Formal and informal practice
Formal mindfulness practice might be undertaking a course in Mindfulness, perhaps attending sessions with a practitioner, 1-1, or going along to a structured group like a Mindfulness Now or MBSR. It could also be just engaging in regular meditation practice by yourself. Formal mindfulness practices involve structure, rituals, repetition and regularity.
Informal mindfulness practice is more akin to "waking up in the moment". In a more ad hoc way, paying attention to our experience of being in the world. This could be by stopping and pausing during the day and opening up awareness of our senses, whenever we're inclined to do so. It could also be the adoption of any or all of the attitudes of Mindfulness and inviting ourselves to incorporate them or live by them as often as we remember.
Attitudes of Mindfulness
Often considered the father of mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn considers several attitudes to underpin a mindful approach to life.
It is human nature to attempt to retain what we have, but when we try to hold on we resist the truth of living. In the moment, now, what do we actually 'have'?
Instead of focussing on a goal in our meditation practice, we can instead understand that ultimately, meditation is nothing more than being who we are. We are always here. There is nothing to strive for or achieve.
Recognising that how we think about life may be restricted by what we have already done, not what may be possible. Adopting an attitude of experiencing something for the first time increases our flexibility in dealing with situations and widens the realm of possibility.
This attitude invites us to connect with ourselves more fully. We often assume that the rational, thinking part of us is the only one that makes decisions. Yet, our feelings can play an essential role in deciding what's right for us.
Recognising that all processes in life have their time. Being ok with waiting and not resisting the natural timescale of events when it is pointless to do so.
Being 'with' the objects of awareness without getting caught up in the 'about-ness' of experience. This is not to say that judgement won't arise, but that it can be witnessed instead of acted upon, a space created between awareness and action.
(arguably the most important) Being with, as opposed to resisting what the present moment holds. As Eckhart Tolle suggests in his book, "The Power of Now", "If you find your here and now intolerable and it makes you unhappy, you have three options: remove yourself from the situation, change it, or accept it totally."
All choices actually become two: change or accept. What else is there to do, apart from continuing suffering? Acceptance offers us the chance to be at peace with what is, not straining to change what cannot be changed.
Benefits of Mindfulness
Those who engage in regular practice may experience
- Improved mental focus
- Clearer thinking
- Improved decision-making
- Alleviating symptoms of depression
- Improved sense of wellbeing
- Feeling in control
- Reduced anxiousness
- Lower stress levels
- And realising that small, daily changes can really make a big difference
- MBSR reduced anxiety, depression and somatic distress
- Farb et al. 2010
- Higher scores on attentional functioning tests
- Moore & Malinowski 2009
Decreased Emotional Reactivity
- Protects against effects of relationship conflicts
- Orther et al 2007, Barnes et al 2007
Increased Capacity for Empathy
- Mindfulness meditation activates empathy regions of the brain
- Chiesa & Serretti 2010
Improved Behavioural Self-Regulation
- Improved executive function and behaviour in school children
- Janz, Dawe, Wyllie 2019
"Living in the moment, not for the moment"
Mindfulness is about 'now'; being conscious and aware of what is happening, moment by moment and being ok with it. It is about developing perceptual skills for appreciating all that takes place, both within you and in the world around you.
Mindfulness involves cultivating attitudes and simple activities that bring your awareness to the present moment. With practice, it can provide a powerful tool for any kind of self-development. After all, it is in the present moment that all things happen. All decisions, all action, all change takes place in the 'now'.
Therapists are also realising the power of a Mindful approaching to their work, both for its ability to support them and for the added benefits to their client's ongoing resilience. As a consequence, increasing numbers of psychologists, psychotherapists, craniosacral therapists and many others are incorporating its principles and exercises into their practice.