Have you ever been eating a snack bar, and after one or two bites, noticed that all you were holding was an empty wrapper? Perhaps you have noticed that when you’re driving somewhere, you arrive at your destination only to realize that you remember nothing about the journey, sometimes not even which route you took? Everyone has! These are common examples of “mindlessness,” or “automatic pilot mode”. In modern life, we find ourselves so busy that we must constantly multi task just to keep up. It becomes increasingly easy to lose awareness of the “now”, the present moment we exist in as we become lost in in our efforts to juggle work, home, family, finances, and other conflicting demands.
As humans, we often find ourselves “not present” in our own lives. We frequently fail to notice the good things about our lives, ignore what our bodies are telling us, or poison our minds and attitudes with toxic self-criticism.
The human mind is easily distracted, habitually reviewing and examining past events to anticipate the future. While it may not sound obviously helpful to become more aware of our thoughts, feelings and emotions, learning to do this in a way that suspends judgment and self-criticism can have an incredibly positive impact on our lives.
Mindfulness is a way of clearly seeing the now, paying attention to whatever is happening in our lives. It will not eliminate life’s pressures, but rather, help us respond to them in a calm manner that benefits out heart, mind, and body. It teaches us to recognize and pull back from habitual, often unconscious emotional and physiological reactions to everyday events. It provides us with a scientifically researched approach to cultivating clarity, insight, and understanding; practicing mindfulness allows us to be fully present in our life and work, improving our quality of life.
“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way;
On purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”
Paying attention “on purpose”
First, understand that mindfulness involves paying attention “on purpose”. Mindfulness involves consciously directing our awareness. We sometimes (me included) talk of “mindfulness” and “awareness” as if these two terms are completely interchangeable, but that is not a good habit to get into. Even if I’m aware that I’m irritable, that doesn’t mean that I’m being mindful of my own irritability. Instead of being just vaguely or habitually aware, mindfulness means that I am purposefully aware of myself. Knowing that I’m eating is not the same thing as eating mindfully.
Let’s look closer at the example of eating. When we are fully aware (mindful) of eating, we are consciously aware of the process of eating. We’re deliberately noticing the sensations of the experience, and our responses to those sensations. We’re also noticing the mind wandering, and purposely bringing our attention back to the moment.
As a contrast, when we’re eating unmindfully, we may in theory be aware of what we’re doing, but we’re probably also distracted from the experience by a hundred and one other things, maybe watching TV, talking, or reading — or even all three at once! Only a very small part of our awareness is absorbed with eating, barely aware of the physical sensations and even less aware of our own thoughts and emotions.
Thus, because we’re only dimly aware of our thoughts, they wander unrestricted. There is no conscious attempt to bring our attention back to eating, intentional choice is lacking.
This intentional choice (purposefulness) is a vital part of mindfulness. Having the purpose of staying with our experience: the feeling of your breath, a particular emotion, or something as simple as eating, means that we are actively engaging and shaping the mind.
Paying attention “in the present moment”
When left to itself, the mind wanders through all kinds of thoughts — including thoughts expressing anger, depression, craving, self-pity, revenge, etc. As we indulge in these kinds of thoughts, we reinforce those emotions in our hearts, causing ourselves to suffer. Mostly, these thoughts are about the past or future, but the past no longer exists and the future is just a fantasy until it happens. The one moment we can actually experience — the present moment — is the one we seem to avoid the most.
So in mindfulness, we’re concerned with noticing what’s going on right now. This doesn’t mean we can no longer think about the past or future, but when we do, we do it mindfully, aware that right now we’re thinking about the past or future.
However, in mediation, we’re concerned with what thoughts are arising in the present moment. When we start to “space out” and when thoughts about the past or future take us away from the present moment’s experience, we try to notice and come back to the present.
By purposefully directing our awareness away from such thoughts and towards our “anchor” or our present moment’s experience, we begin to decrease their effect on our lives, creating a space of freedom where calmness and contentment can grow instead.
Paying attention “non-judgmentally”
Mindfulness is an emotionally non-reactive state. We don’t judge this experience as good or that one as bad, or if we do make those judgments, we notice it and let go of them. We don’t get upset because we’re experiencing something we don’t want to be experiencing, or because we’re not experiencing what we would like to be experiencing. We simply accept whatever arises, observing it mindfully. We notice it arising, passing through us, and then ceasing to exist.
Whether it’s a pleasant experience or a painful experience, we treat it the same way.
Cognitively, mindfulness means that we are aware certain experiences are pleasant and some are unpleasant, but on an emotional level, we simply do not react. We call this “equanimity” — stillness and balance of mind.
The benefits of Mindfulness include
Helping individuals to:
Recognize, slow down or stop automatic and habitual reactions.
Respond more effectively to complex or difficult situations.
See situations more clearly
Become more creative
Achieve balance and resilience at work and at home
Have an easier and lighter life
What does mindfulness involve?
Practitioners of mindfulness learn how to pay attention on purpose by practicing and using specially developed mindfulness meditation practices. With practice, they learn to slow down or stop brain chatter and automatic, habitual reactions, experiencing the present moment in fullness as it really is.
When practicing mindfulness, everyone, regardless of how much they practice, will experience everyday thoughts creeping into their heads uninvited. This is perfectly normal and okay – it’s just what our brains do. It’s how we respond to these thoughts that is important.
If we begin to think about the thought, or get annoyed with ourselves for not being able to retain our focus, it stops us from paying attention and takes us away from the present moment. But when we just acknowledge the thought and release it without judgment, we retain our focus, remaining fully in the present moment.
As with all new skills, the more we practice it, the easier and more natural it becomes. Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb coined the phrase, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” In other words, the more we practice mindfulness, the more we develop neurological pathways in the brain associated with being mindful, thus making it easier to be fully present in each and every moment as you experience it.
By learning to experience the present moment as it really is, we develop the ability to step away from our habitual, often unconscious emotional and physiological reactions to everyday events. We learn to see things as they really are, responding wisely and consciously instead of relying on “auto pilot”.
Who is mindfulness for?
Mindfulness is for everyone, young and old, from all walks of life. Mindfulness is not a religion and there are no necessary religious components to mindfulness – anyone, with any belief system, can enjoy the benefits of mindfulness.
Although mindfulness may have its origins in the east, the benefits of mindfulness and meditation are now relatively mainstream and the scientific community has found data positively correlating mindfulness and meditation to stress reduction.