What is mindfulness?
Jon Kabat-Zinn, who developed the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) eight-week programme over 30 years ago, defines mindfulness as “the awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally.”
Let’s look at what this means.
Paying attention, on purpose…
Most of us spend much of our time living on ‘automatic pilot’, so caught up with whatever is in our heads that we don’t pay attention or fully experience what is actually happening. We can become lost in a stream of thoughts and not recognise how habitual thought patterns are driving our emotions and behaviours.
Your thoughts are like a river – a stream of thoughts flowing by all the time. If you are in the middle of that stream, you can get carried away. Practicing mindfulness helps you come out of the water, sit on the river bank and watch the stream of thoughts go by. It helps you identify repeating patterns and see thoughts for what they really are – just thoughts.
Mindfulness meditation helps us take a mental step back from our thoughts so we can see them more clearly. This means we can make conscious choices about how best to respond to a particular situation or challenge, rather than reacting in a habitual way.
…in the present moment…
Very rarely do we live fully in the present moment. Our minds tend to be constantly thinking about the past and/or worrying about the future. However, the present moment is the only real moment that we have. The past is past and can’t be changed and the future with all its unknowns isn’t here yet.
When we are paying attention mindfully, we are completely in the experience of the present moment. We become more aware of what is actually happening in our bodies and minds. Mindfulness helps us acknowledge how things are in the here and now. We accept whatever situation, thought or emotion is already here; avoiding or fighting it won’t really help matters. From a place of acceptance, we can choose to respond in a more mindful, more skilful way to help make a better-informed decision that can lead to change.
Thinking is an important part of being human and everything mankind has created started with a thought. Mindfulness is not about trying to stop our thoughts. Thoughts are important to our survival and evolution.
Mindfulness is about paying attention to our thoughts as they arise, in a mindful way, without judging them. It’s about sitting on the river bank watching them go by. If you start judging yourself or beating yourself up for having so many ‘negative’ thoughts, that’s just another thought and before you know it you are back in the river, being swept away by the current. Mindfulness helps us simply acknowledge thoughts without making any judgement, letting them go and keeping our focus where it needs to be in the present moment.
What are the benefits of mindfulness?
The Mental Health Foundation (MHF) in the UK describes mindfulness as “a mind-body approach that helps people change the way they think and feel about their experiences, especially stressful experiences.” It continues by saying that “mindfulness training helps us become more aware of our thoughts and feelings so that instead of being overwhelmed by them, we’re better able to manage them. Taking a mindfulness course can give people more insight into their emotions, boost their attention and improve relationships. ”
Research shows that practicing mindfulness meditation can help us:
- Reduce anxiety, stress and irritability
- Improve memory
- Reduce the impact of chronic pain
- Improve our general feeling of wellbeing and quality of life.