What is mindfulness?
Doubtless you have heard about mindfulness by now. It’s being talked about by everyone from the CEO of that successful company to that guy on the zoom call who is really chill.
But what is mindfulness?
It’s an old concept, which has its roots in Eastern meditation practices, and has been defined in many different ways over the years:
bringing one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis (Mindfulness and meditation, 1999)
paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally (Effects of Mindfulness on Psychological Health: A Review of Empirical Studies, 1994)
The non-judgemental part of the second quote is particularly important to bear in mind, as one can easily get wrapped up in self-criticising when engaging in thoughts about ourselves.
So, mindfulness is the act of paying attention to one’s own thoughts and feelings, not acting on them and not casting judgement about them. It is a way of guiding one’s attention, not controlling it, but guiding it to the things we want to pay attention to.
One could describe the process of being mindful as a meta-thought, that is to say a thought which is above our standard thought process, a thought about a thought if you will.
How does mindfulness help?
Through the act of becoming more aware of our thought processes, it allows us to maintain a certain distance from them. This can allow us to have a look at the potential causes of the stress, or perhaps the true root of the problem.
Taking a mental step back from the stress can also help to identify when the amygdala (the part of the brain which regulates emotion) is overactive, or potentially even hijacked, which allows us to practice soothing techniques.
Being stressed is a physical experience as well as mental. Checking in with yourself, both physically and mentally, can help you to recognise the physical actions that one performs when one is stressed (biting the lip, tensing the shoulders etc.). Recognizing these actions and physical reactions to stress can help to alleviate them.
Mindfulness is about recognizing these thoughts and feelings, without passing judgement on them. Just noticing that something is wrong is the first step in trying to reduce or remove it.
Paying attention to one’s own thoughts and feelings after an amount of time will naturally give you more insight into the way that you think. By giving yourself the time and the space to be still and notice the way that you are feeling, it opens you up to noticing new feelings. And this is something that you are giving yourself.
Not only can it improve your own mental wellbeing, it also gives you the space to be more receptive and open to others. Checking in with yourself in an honest and non-judgemental way allows you to more effectively hold space for others and listen to them in a deeper way. This works because mindfulness is a deliberate action, by listening to how you feel without casting judgement on it, you are more able to evaluate how much emotional bandwidth you have to listen and care for others.
Mindfulness (and meditation) is an active process, it is not simply sitting still and “clearing the mind”, anyone who has tried this will attest to the fact that our minds are often very busy with thoughts.
Mindfulness is a skill that can be developed. By improving this skill, you are literally training your mind to remain focused on something for long periods of time. As you train your mind, you will find that it requires fewer and fewer resources to focus on a task as your practice increases. This sounds like a spurious claim, but there is evidence that this is the case.
Mindfulness is a process that is not new, and you’ve most likely accidentally been practicing mindfulness in one way or another throughout your life. By developing our ability to be mindful of our own thoughts and feelings, it gives us the chance to notice and recognize aspects of ourselves that we may not have been aware of.
Are you interested in trying mindfulness for yourself?
We run guided group mindfulness sessions every Wednesday at 19:00 British Summer Time, so you can put what you’ve learned into practice!