Mindfulness seems to be everywhere in self-help media at the moment – the solution to every problem from overeating, to stress relief, to spiritual connection to perfect parenting. Just what is mindfulness, and how do I get some of this wonder cure?
The standard definition of mindfulness is the act of paying attention to the present moment, without judgement. To me, it means getting out of your head – because it’s very rare for our mind to not be judging a situation (whether good or bad) and for us to concentrate on the present for any period of time.
Think about mindfulness the next time you have a conversation with someone. See if you can notice yourself switching between:
Actually listening (that’s the mindfulness) and
Judging (that’s thinking about what they’re saying and evaluating it – e.g. I can’t believe she’s telling me this, how clever to have said that, what an idiot!) and
Planning (thinking about what you’ll say next, or what you’ll do after the conversation) and
Worrying (tuning out and thinking about if you’ll make it to your next appointment on time, or wondering if they’re staring at that pimple on your neck) and
Judging (congratulating yourself on being mindful and not thinking!)
Once you pay attention, you’ll realise that you flick between these different modes many times during a conversation – depending on the person and the impact of their information, of course. But it’s very rare to fully listen without at least making a good/ bad type judgement about what you’re hearing. And that’s with an ‘easy’ way of being mindful – after all, we’re meant to be listening when someone else is talking, right? Try being mindful when no-one’s watching, or when what you’re doing is boring or painful, and it’s much more difficult.
So why persist in this effortful process that seems almost doomed to futility? Because mindfulness really does have some of the wonder powers its advocates talk up. It can increase the likelihood of reaching your goal – whether your goal is to eat better, be a better parent, reduce stress, increase your spirituality, or something else entirely. This is because the more aware you are of the present moment, the easier it is to catch yourself in the act of unhelpful thinking and actions and change them. In doing so, you stay on track to your goals.
Here are some simple activities you can do to increase your ability to be mindful:
5, 4, 3, 2, 1: Pause for one minute and name to yourself: 5 things you can see, 4 sounds you can hear, 3 things you can feel (hint: clothes and the pressure of sitting on a chair are things you can feel), 2 smells, and 1 taste.
Take in one long deep breath, and then exhale. As you do, stay focused completely on the sensations associated with the breath: the feel of the air in your nose and mouth, the sensation of chest rising and falling, the feeling of air filling and emptying the lungs.
Set an alarm to go off every hour. When it does, ask yourself: what was I just thinking about?
When you eat something, take the opportunity to really savour it, to fully taste what you’re eating. Try to really focus on the sensations in your mouth, take your time chewing and swallowing.
Next time it’s sunny, take a few moments to appreciate the warmth and the light. Notice how everything brightens when it’s sunny. When it’s raining, listen to the sounds it makes. Notice the way it clings to windows and drips off plants.
Choose a pleasant activity (e.g. eating, cuddling a child, having a shower, looking at the stars) and focus on the emotional experience. Focus on your feelings, what you can feel in your body, and ay urges, thoughts or memories that arise. Really drink in the emotion and enjoy being able to feel this way.
The next time you encounter a flower or a leaf, actually pay attention to it. Look at the colours (there will be more than one shade!), feel its texture. Smell it. Think about what it took/ how the plant produced this part of itself.
The more you practice paying attention, the easier it gets. Once you’ve practiced for a bit, it will come more naturally to you to check in where your attention is and what you’re doing. That’s when it can help you to stay on track to your goals. And there are some other benefits too…but that’s for another post!
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Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.