Mindfulness is a term that seems to generate a lot of hype nowadays, but what’s it all about?
In simple terms, it means ‘being present’ and giving your full attention to the moment we’re in, aware of where we are and what we’re doing.
It is a close relative of meditation, but differs in some important ways that make it much more accessible to most of us – it is less time intensive and easier to achieve. In fact, it was adapted from Buddhist mindfulness meditation, but don’t let that intimidate you – anyone can practise mindfulness. It is not obscure, exotic or religious – it works with the abilities that we already have (but that are often neglected). We all have the ability to ‘be present’ – it just takes a little practice!
Unlike meditation, mindfulness does not aim to quiet the mind, or trying to achieve ‘Zen’. The goal of mindfulness is just to become aware of the inner workings of our mental, emotional, and physical processes, things we can easily take for granted.
Mindfulness is probably best understood as self-awareness training. It can help you acknowledge, accept and deal with difficult thoughts and emotions, and although it seems new, it has been part of psychological therapies since the 1970s.
The benefits of mindfulness
Have you ever eaten a meal and not really tasted anything as you were so distracted? Or been reading a book and not absorbed a single word for several pages? This state of distraction or ‘auto pilot’ that is so familiar to many of us is what mindfulness seeks to address.
By helping us to learn to focus our attention, mindfulness helps us put some space between ourselves and our impulsive reactions, and can help us identify and change our conditioned and automatic responses. It has been adapted for use in treatment of depression, especially preventing relapse and for assisting with mood regulation and anger management.
It also helps reduce rumination – the state of dwelling on painful memories, problems, worries and fears about the future that is very familiar to those with anxiety or depression. Mindfulness creates an ‘anchor’ to the present that can stop your mind from getting stressed and overwhelmed.
Mindfulness can help you to:
- Be more productive.
- Be calm
- Reduce stress and anxiety
- Improve concentration, focus and block distractions
- Control emotions like anger, fear and impatience
- Improve creativity
- Sleep better
- Improve your wellbeing.
- Enhance relationships by helping you connect better and give people more attention
- Improve at work through better focus.
How to practice mindfulness
It’s easy and accessible to begin your mindfulness practice. It can be practiced solo or with like-minded friends. There’s heaps of smartphone apps out there too if you need a little help to get going.
There are two parts to mindfulness:
- Learning to focus your attention and bring attention back when it wanders
- Learning to be open, non-judgemental and curious about what you bring your focus to.
Here’s a quick guide to kick things off:
- Set aside 5 minutes
- Sit (or stand) quietly
- Pay attention to the present moment, without judgement.
- Focus on your senses – what can you see, smell, taste, touch or hear? Don’t analyse or think about it much, just notice what you’re sensing
If intrusive thoughts start entering your mind, simply note them and bring back your attention to your senses. To calm your mind from racing, try calmly breathing in and out and focus on your breath to slow down your thoughts.
Its’ easy to start and gets easier the more you do it, so keep practising. You can even incorporate it into a simple daily routine, like washing the dishes. Other common techniques include body scans, or ‘mindful moments’ where you take time to pause and breathe when the phone or doorbell rings.
An important note
Although often recommended (and often useful) for people dealing with emotional issues, this practice can be harmful in some cases and can lead to anxiety, panic, and re-experiencing traumatic memories. People suffering from serious mental health problems like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder should consult with a health professional before undergoing intensive mindfulness practice.
Also be careful about grand claims about other health benefits like helping with cancer. These claims remain unproven so should be viewed warily.
Mindfulness doesn’t work for everyone – If it doesn’t work after several tries, stop and try something else.