What is Mindfulness?

Being mindful of one’s feelings may sound like the obscure wishy-washy advice of a Tibetan monk or Jedi knight, but there’s more to the idea of being Mindful than vaguely condescending phrases.  In fact, it is a practice and method of thinking that can be extremely helpful in our study, work and domestic lives in helping us to focus more on what is important and dwell less on the things that disturb us.

Mindfulness is generally accepted to be a state of active attention on the present, focussing on one’s feelings, thoughts and emotions in a detached fashion in a compassionate way.  This doesn’t mean that one simply sits there and lets life wash over them, rather one actively observes the life, much as one might observe a painting in an art gallery.   Spurred on by an article in Lifehacker on mindfulness

Instead of a portrait on a wall, the mindful participant focuses on the ideas entering their head, and also on the world around them.  They might focus on the sounds they can hear with their ears or the taste of the food they are eating.  Even the sensation of sitting in a chair can if focussed on be part of a mindfulness-based exercise.

Why Mindfulness

Given many peoples stressful lives, it can be easy to adopt a sense of tunnel vision when going through life.  We may be so focused on where we have been, or where we are going that we forget to focus on where we now are.   In both senses, this causes us to become more stressed.  The past has already happened, and the future is yet to happen.  All we can influence is the now. 

Mindfulness encourages us to move away from dwelling on thoughts outside of the present.  That is not to say we ignore those thoughts that bring us worry or concern, only that we recognise them in a detached manner, push them aside and bring our attention back to the present moment. 

By providing relief from the troubles of the world, if only temporarily, mindfulness techniques are excellent in combating stress, depression and similar mental conditions and have been recognized by a huge variety of health providers and government agencies for their benefits they provide and is an ideal tool for psychologists, coaches and counsellors alike. 

Origins of Mindfulness

The stereotype of the Buddhist monk when mindfulness is discussed nevertheless reflects the origins of mindfulness teaching within Buddhist tradition, although there is evidence to suggest that the practices had earlier origins amongst Hindu practices from before the birth of Buddha. 

Mindfulness first made its way into the west via the work of the language scholar, Thomas William Rhys Davids, who translated the Buddhist term in the Pali language of Sati to mean mindfulness. However, there has been some dispute over the accuracy of this translation over the years since, with many scholars dissenting.  

In recent decades, scientific studies and approval have led to a greater spread of awareness of the health benefits of the practice with agencies such as the British National Health Service (NHS) advocating for its use in the treatment of disorders such as stress and anxiety.

How to be Mindful

There are entire books and courses devoted to mindfulness teachings, delving into the practice in a depth we couldn’t begin to approach here.  However, a basic understanding of mindfulness techniques is easy to grasp and available to anyone prepared to spend a few minutes practising and developing them. 

All one needs to do to begin is to set aside some time to focus on living in the now.  To observe the world around them as they go for a walk.  To focus on the sensations of food as they walk past a restaurant.  Even sitting quietly on your chair with your eyes closed focusing on the sensations of breathing is an activity where you can practice mindfulness. 

The key is to engage completely with the sensations of whatever activity you are doing.  Whether you are looking at the patterns in the bark of a tree or focusing on the experience of water on your hands when doing the washing up, by keeping your attention on the physical sensations you are experiencing, you effectively shut down, temporarily the part of your brain that is focused on the past or future.  

When, not if, such thoughts return, the key is to recognize that you are and to gently push them aside. As with all training mental or physical, the more you exercise this the easier it will be to perform on-demand, eventually allowing your mindfulness training to be an invaluable tool in coping with whatever stress life throws at you. 

Fancy trying a little mindfulness for yourself?  Try looking around and naming the first three red items you see and let us know in the comments!

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