What is Mindfulness? – in a word it is awareness.
There is a common phrase used in mindfulness circles, which is: ‘you can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf’. In mindfulness, our surfboard is the breath or the mantra or the body scan and our thoughts are the waves. Sometimes our thoughts will be all over the place, like a stormy beach and other times, especially with practice, our thoughts will calm down just like a calm lagoon.
Thoughts are normal. It is the practice of paying attention to the surfboard (breath, mantra) no matter what the waves (thoughts) are doing which will bring us back to ourselves and just like deep down in the ocean there is a peaceful spacious place the same goes for us. If we practice mindfulness even when there are no waves it will make it easier to use mindfulness when life gets a bit stormy.
Mindfulness, in a word, is AWARENESS
Mindfulness is the opposite of automatic pilot. It is arriving here in this present moment – right here, right now.
According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, “mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.
Jack Kormfield says it is, “awareness of present experience with acceptance”.
Sam Harris says, “mindfulness is simply a state of clear, nonjudgmental, and non-discursive attention to the contents of consciousness, whether pleasant or unpleasant. Developing this quality of mind has been shown to reduce pain, anxiety, and depression; improve cognitive function; and even produce changes in gray matter density in regions of the brain related to learning and memory, emotional regulation, and self-awareness”.
Sometimes we are thinking without knowing that we are thinking. Sometimes our thoughts are giving us a hard time (or our emotions or even physical sensations). But, a bit like Mark Twain, who once noted that
“I’ve lived a long life filled with so many misfortunes, most of which never happened”.
We can often be thinking and worrying needlessly.
If we remain aware in a spacious, open-hearted and curious way, and know we are connected to a larger system, we tend to have a good experience of mindfulness. Sometime we even experience a stillness, a space and a sense of freedom.
In most mindful practices, you notice the thoughts, sensations and feelings and then you gently bring your attention back to; for example your breath or mantra or body part or sound or whatever you are focusing your attention on. We realise the present moment is usually pretty safe and our thoughts are often about worries about the past or concerns about the future.
When we do this, we become observers of our thoughts, feelings and sensations and we understand that everything moves past or through us. We learn to allow and acknowledge what we find and let go of resistance. We remain curious and open. This increases our capacity to be with difficulties and to be in the moment without becoming overwhelmed or avoidant. Mindfulness can re-engage you with moment-to-moment living.
If we pause and become aware of our thinking, we can choose to do something else. We can actively pay attention for example to our breath and then notice what else is happening. As we notice thoughts or other sensations, we let our attention come back to our breath and we let the thoughts, sensations come and go and pass by.
We can note the thought, let go of it and come back to the present and the anchor of the breath and maybe even stillness. We are just being and accepting what is here now. If our mind is still active that is OK, that is normal. We just keep noticing what arises moment to moment without judgment and with kindness or curiosity. We are interested in the quality of the here and now. We are breathing in and we know we are breathing in. We are breathing out and we know we are breathing out.
We can choose to cultivate this. We are ‘learning to return’ to our breath and we are ‘training to remain’ with our breath.
When you are mindfully breathing in, know that you are doing that. When you are mindfully breathing out know that too. Then you may notice that you are thinking and then make a note of that, become an “observer self” and say “thinking”. This is called ‘noting’. Notice how it is to be calm or bored or anxious or worried. We can begin to notice that thoughts come and go and that emotion like fear come and go too.
The idea is to just notice without judgment and with kindness and curiosity. The breath is our anchor. You and I can notice how our attention moves to past worries or future concerns. We can realise we are not just a bundle of our thoughts. Our thoughts are separate to us. We can also become aware that we are not our feelings, feelings come and go and change. We can also notice that physical sensations come and go too.
Of course, sometimes thoughts, feelings and sensations can seem overwhelming and as if they are the only thing that is happening. However, if we practice using for example our breath as an anchor and observing our self, we will have a way to look on and not become overwhelmed and we will learn to be beside the things we find and we will notice they will change.
We can notice all of it without judgment and that will allow us to tap into our wisdom. This can really help us realize if we allow and acknowledge things settle and if we try to get rid of it or ignore it things often get worse.
Jack Kornfield has a nice way of saying this, he says: “it is like training a puppy, say ‘STAY’ and every time the puppy (your attention) wonders off (to a thought, feeling or sensation), just gently bring the puppy back and say ‘STAY’ again”. Eventually the puppy is trained and so you will be too.
Research is showing that mindfulness helps with:
- wellbeing and
- self soothing and
- resilience and
- emotional regulation and
- executive control (which means the smart part of our brain can be activated and be logical and rational.
People who develop good mindfulness practice:
- have better immune responses and
- their left prefrontal cortex, which is just behind your forehead, is more active and this seems to relate to being more positive and at peace and happier and hopeful.
We will have moments between the thoughts. This means we can learn we are no longer hostage to our thoughts in those fleeting moments. We get a glimpse of being – a spaciousness, a bliss, a joy and perhaps a dawning sense of compassion.
As you practice mindfulness it is helpful to bring a mindful attitude, which for me means, being present with a gentle friendly attitude or at the very least a curiosity. These are things that students can learn and develop either as a stand-alone activity or as part of the integrated MORE than MINDFULNESS program
Jon Kabat-Zinn tells us about the nine attitudes required to enhance our mindfulness practices:
- An attitude of acceptance and just being present
- Non-judgment. Become aware of how we judge and even not judging the judgment.
- Patience with ourselves and what comes
- Beginners mind – looking at things freshly
- Trust ourselves and the wisdom of our bodies
- Non-doing or not striving or just being
- Letting go, not forcing or striving
The benefits of mindfulness, if we keep practicing coming back to the moment, are that it:
- Enhances our capacity to be with pain (or indeed our joy)
- Allows us to step out of our thought stream (or ruminating or getting stuck in past or future thought loops)
- Gives us insight into our self
- Generates compassion towards our self and others.
Research and evidence
This is a good article on how the brain is changed by mindfulness
Lots of mindfulness practices have four common foundations:
- We notice our bodies just sitting or by doing a body scan.
- We can also notice the body breathing
- We can notice emotions
- We can notice thoughts.
Some mindfulness practices also notice sounds.
“Mindful people … can better cope with difficult thoughts and emotions without becoming overwhelmed or shutting down (emotionally).” Pausing and observing the mind may (help us) resist getting stuck in our story and as a result empower us to move forward.” Carley Hauck www.mindful.org
This is exactly the kind of impact I know the MORE than MINDFULNESS program overall can and does have on students. This is the kind of practical result that simple practices can produce as a concrete contribution to resilience and wellbeing.
Sometimes in life there is good reason to be stressed or worried and anxious, mindfulness can help (as can focusing) to settle ourselves when life gets bumpy as it inevitably does.
CALL TO ACTION at the end of each of the blogs