Getting to the bottom of what mindfulness is, and isn’t, and why it might just be for you
Like many buzz words in the field of well-being, ‘mindfulness’ may now feel a little over used to the point where we may walk past this word and what it means. Quite simply, mindfulness is the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something, and the reason it has become such a go-to tool in recent times (although it has actually been around for thousands of years) is that we are rarely aware or conscious of the things we experience. Our ability to be on complete autopilot most of the time means we do not get to experience the present moment, it flashes past us in a haze as we rush from one impending deadline to the next. How often have you got from A to B without remembering a single part of the journey, ate a meal and didn’t savour the taste, or even worse, laid on a beautiful sandy beach whilst worrying about that happened a few weeks before? Our mind wanders off, we lose touch with the here and now, and pretty soon we’re immersed in obsessive thoughts about something that just happened or fretting about the future. And that makes us anxious. To be mindful – allowing ourselves to be present in the moment – gives us the ability to refocus our attention, reconnect with ourselves and the world around us allowing us to step back from negative thinking. So it follows that strengthening this ability can have extraordinary effects on wellbeing and mental health.
Despite existing for thousands of years, mindfulness has, over the last few decades, been embraced within the field of psychology. Therapeutic practises such as mindfulness based cognitive therapy (MBCT) or mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) are gaining momentum and thanks to apps such as Calm, Headspace or Insight Timer, mindfulness is now accessible to each and every one of us.
Mindfulness falls under the banner of ‘third-wave therapies’ – this refers to more recent advances in therapy that focus on the relationship someone has with their own thoughts and emotions, rather than the content within them. And this is where mindfulness can also work its magic – the point of mindfulness is not to get rid of thoughts (this would be impossible as we have very clever brains, and they really like to think) but how we relate to our thoughts. Wouldn’t it be better to get to know our thoughts, and to work with them, rather than against them? This may sound counter-intuitive for some, after all, who wants to think about negative thoughts? But our thoughts can generate even further suffering when faced with stress and worry, pain and anguish. To train ourselves to better notice when we are being negative or self-sabotaging allows us to make a choice – do I follow this thought or can I choose to just observe it and let it go? Our thoughts may run and run on autopilot damaging our self-esteem, increasing stress and frustration, sometimes maybe anger and sadness, but being able to recognise these patterns enables us to step outside of them and choose to do something else. Mindfulness takes practise, and the more we do it, the more we notice, the more we can remain in control.
But I’m no good at it!
So here’s some even better news – you will never be an expert! A lot of my clients claim ‘I’m no good at it’ – but there is no way to be ‘good’ at it, we are just taking the time to be more present, and there will be good and bad days. It’s an ongoing discipline that just gets better and better, the more we do it. A bit like going to the gym – if you want your body to work optimally, to keep strong and balanced, then you need to put in some effort and get off that couch. But much like going to the gym, with mindfulness some days will be better than others.
One day your mind will be overcrowded with thoughts – I’ve remembered the MOST important things mid-way through a body scan, but this is OK, noticing this mind-wandering is all part of the process. On other days my mind will be quieter and I have come away feeling profoundly replenished, like a shower for the soul. This does not mean my less profound days don’t count – they are all part of the journey of building the mindfulness muscle. After all, if I get tired and only do 20 minutes in the gym rather than my usual full hour, I have still had a workout. To begin with, maybe just set aside 5-10 minutes per day – the ability to have this time to step outside of your routine and notice what is going on elsewhere will be an invaluable skill to use in those moments when things start to get tough.