The human brain has an amazing ability to think about the past, the present and the future simultaneously. Perhaps you are conscious of this at this very moment as you all at once think back to your life before the COVID-19 pandemic, consider your current situation and begin to imagine the ‘new normal’ which is going to come about in the future. Perhaps, whilst considering all these things at once, you feel a bit off balance and that your mind is in a whirl.
No doubt you are aware that your ability to function in the present can be significantly impacted by thoughts relating to the past or to the future, whether these are positive or negative. The uncertain times we are living in have brought with them anxieties about what the future holds and perhaps an almost ‘grieving’ for our former lives. With everything that is going on, it can be a challenge to keep our minds in the present and yet, there is a growing body of evidence that tells us that if we can learn to do this, there will be benefits not only for our mental health and well-being but also for our physical health, our thinking skills and creativity, our relationships and indeed our life skills in general.
Over the last few years, the approach known as ‘Mindfulness’ has become increasingly mainstream – we hear about Mindfulness wherever we go: in schools to help children learn to manage and to focus, in the workplace to help cope with stress, as an approach to parenting, eating, exercising. In fact, we hear about mindful approaches in almost every area of life.
But what exactly is ‘Mindfulness’?
The idea of Mindfulness is very straightforward. Essentially it is about paying close attention to an experience in the present. It’s about focusing on what we are actually feeling and experiencing in the here and now, without judgement:
“Mindfulness means paying attention, in the present moment, without making any kind of judgement”
It incorporates a feeling of allowing ourselves to be openhearted or ‘spacious’, meaning that we become open to reinterpreting the world around us, rather than being hidebound by the thinking habits that we have developed over time, which shape our perspective and affect our responses – our ‘autopilot’ mode.
It might be that we are noticing something we are doing, something we are feeling, something we are looking at – the important thing is that whatever it is has our purposeful attention and we are simply noticing. Practising Mindfulness allows us to recognise and name feelings without becoming caught up in them or judging ourselves for having them. It allows us to describe ourselves without making associations with events or others. It allows us to live more in the moment and less in the past or in the future.
You can try this out as a starter Mindfulness exercise now by clicking here
Mindfulness is not about relaxation. Whilst you may feel relaxed after engaging in a Mindfulness exercise or having learned to take a generally more mindful approach to life, it requires you to be actively engaged in a process – and bear in mind, very often we don’t have conscious control over what thoughts enter our heads or the feelings that arise within us; being mindful of those thoughts and feelings means that we actively notice and pay attention to them – Mindfulness is not about emptying your mind or stopping thinking.
It is important to guard against the practice of Mindfulness becoming a ‘self-improvement’ exercise. Any such exercise inherently contains an element of judgement of yourself, which Mindfulness definitely does not. Mindfulness is, very simply, about getting to know yourself and the things around you just as they are. The more curious you are, the more you will notice. This may well lead you to feeling happier, having an increased sense of being at ease and believing that you are better able to cope with the things that you encounter in life, but Mindfulness is not, in itself, about self-improvement.
There is sometimes a perception that there is a religious element to Mindfulness. This is not the case. What is true is that there are a number of Mindfulness practitioners who are linked with Buddhism and who use Mindfulness within their meditation. However, remember that Buddhism is not a religion, rather a philosophy which is about developing insight, as opposed to faith. Mindful practices, in fact, predate Buddhism, having been an element of the Taoist philosophy which underpinned the development of Chinese medicine and healing philosophy, as well as the development of martial arts.
Benefits of Mindfulness
Many benefits of Mindfulness practice have been identified. These include:
- Better physical health.
- Improved mental health and well-being.
- Increased happiness and contentment.
- Increased self-awareness and improved skills for life.
- Enhanced thinking skills.