We have probably all had the experience of getting into our car to go somewhere, and arriving at our destination with no real memory of the journey; or of setting off intending to go to the shops, but instead driving to our mother’s house or some other familiar place.
Why does this happen? On these occasions, instead of our attention being on the journey, we are caught up or lost in our thoughts. Usually these thoughts are about something that happened earlier, or something we have to do later. In other words, our attention is fixed on the products of our mind, the past and the future, rather than on the present moment.
We can refer to this state of being as “mindlessness” – and it is the state in which many of us live much of our lives. Mindfulness, on the other hand, involves maintaining contact with the present moment, being in the here and now, fully conscious of our current experience.
Mindfulness is an ancient concept, and is found in a wide range of spiritual and religious traditions, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and Christianity. Mindfulness can be described in a variety of different ways, with a basic definition being “paying attention to the present moment with flexibility, openness and curiosity”.
Mindfulness as "Noticing"
At the core of every formal mindfulness exercise is the word: “notice”. In mindfulness exercises we “notice” something. To use other words, we observe, bring our attention to, focus on, or become aware of something. The thing that we notice can be anything that is present in this moment; a thought, a feeling, a physical sensation, or anything that we can see, touch, smell, taste or hear. All popular mindfulness exercises involve the same basic intention : To notice or observe “X”, and when you realise that you have drifted off into your thoughts, to gently acknowledge this, and bring your attention back to “X”. “X” can be your breath, a particular sound, a sensation in your body, an object in your environment and so on.
In addition to formal mindfulness exercises, mindfulness can be incorporated into our daily lives using an everyday activity or task. For example, while having a shower, we can choose to totally focus on the experience. We can notice:
the sounds of the water as it sprays out of the nozzle, as it lands on our body, and as it gurgles down the plug;
the temperature of the water, and the feel of it in our hair, or running down the backs of our legs;
the smell of the soap or shampoo, and the feel of these on our skin;
the sight of the droplets of water flowing down the shower screen, or running off our body;
the sensations inside our body as we move our arms to wash ourselves.
As soon as we become aware that we have drifted off into our thoughts, we simply acknowledge that this has happened and bring our attention back to the present moment.
Similarly, we can use a task that we might normally dislike or try to rush through such as ironing clothes. Mindfulness of this domestic task might involve noticing:
the colour and shape of the clothing;
the patterns made by the creases and how those patterns change as the iron passes over them;
the hiss of the steam and sound of the iron moving over the fabric;
the sensations in our hand gripping the iron, and in our arm moving it across the board.
If feelings of boredom or frustration arise, we simply acknowledge those feelings and return our attention to the task.
Even very small events such as having a sip of tea or cool water, a slight breeze on our skin, quiet bird sounds, and the sensation of clothing or a chair against our legs can be the focus of our attention for brief periods, and help bring us more fully into the present moment. The effect of incorporating mindfulness into our daily lives in this way can be quite remarkable.
If you would like to learn more about how to enhance the quality of your life through the use of everyday mindfulness please consider making an appointment with me. Learning mindfulness is a rewarding and life-enhancing experience for all of us.