What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a word that is increasingly heard in popular media, but what really is mindfulness?
Let’s start by thinking about what we can call “present moment focus” or here-and-now. In essence, all life is lived in the here-and-now – nothing can be directly experienced except the present moment. Everything else we experience is a product of our mind - a thought, a plan, a memory, an image, and these all relate to the past or to the future. Obviously the ability to consider and learn from the past, and plan for the future is essential for humans and most of the time very helpful.
However, most of us can probably appreciate that becoming overly entangled in thoughts about the past, which we can refer to as rumination, or thoughts about the future, which we can refer to as worrying, can be problematic. We can start to behave as if these conceptualisations or ideas about the past and the future are actually our current moment, which they are not of course. This results in our spending little time in the here-and-now.
Of course at times it is helpful to be in the past, when remembering is useful, and at times it is helpful to be in the future, when planning is important. And it is also helpful to have the capacity to be in the present, when a present moment focus is most useful. Psychological flexibility in part refers to the ability to choose where we want our focus. For most of us, increasing contact with the present moment allows us to step out of our internal world constructed by our thoughts, and step into the here-and-now.
Mindfulness as contact with the present moment
The capacity to be in the here-and-now is one way of understanding mindfulness. Mindfulness means attending to our ongoing experience with a curious and non-judgemental stance. Our ongoing experience will include sensory experiences coming from the outside world, such as sounds and colours, and our internal experiences including thoughts, memories, images, physical sensations, emotions. We may notice a pattern of leaves, the sound of a bird, the feeling of our feet in our shoes, a thought “I wish I had a cup of tea”, an itch on our head and so on. Each experience is noticed and allowed to pass. It is natural and expected that we will get “hooked” by thoughts and fall out of noticing as we practise mindfulness. This will happen less often as we practise, but even those who have engaged in very extensive practice of mindful observation are not able to maintain contact with the present moment all the time.
Benefits of mindfulness
So how does the capacity to be mindful help in daily life? The body of research on the benefits of mindfulness appears to be increasing weekly! Studies show reduced rumination and worrying, improved memory, stress reduction, improved attentional focus, better self-insight, reduced emotional reactivity, enhanced relationship satisfaction, reduced fear and worrying, increased immune function, improvements in general physical health and well-being – the list really does go on and on. Psychologically, when we unhook from all the construction of past and future going on in our brain, we are freed up to act in line with our values, to respond creatively to what is, to escape from being controlled by pain and history.
If you are interested in learning more about mindfulness please consider making an appointment with me, and we can talk about how increased mindfulness might enhance your psychological resilience and quality of life. I invite you to also read my article " Everyday mindfulness".