What is Mindfulness? And What it is Not
Mindfulness is a tool that has become exceedingly popular recently. Only a few years ago the general public would not be familiar with the term, whereas today it’s something we hear about all the time in a range of different contexts.
In some ways this is a good thing: mindfulness is a great tool to be aware of and it can be used to greatly improve your concentration, awareness and happiness. But at the same time, it’s also a bad thing: because it has been misappropriated in many instances and many people don’t actually really understand what it means anymore.
With that in mind, let’s take an in-depth look at what mindfulness is and what it isn’t – and how you can start using it to improve your life.
Mindfulness is often used to describe a type of meditation. Specifically, ‘mindfulness meditation’ is a type of meditation that involves reflecting on the contents of your own mind and how they might be affecting you. Whereas the point of some forms of meditation – such as transcendental meditation – is to completely ‘empty’ your mind, the point of mindfulness is instead to simply detach yourself from your thoughts and become an observer. This way, you can prevent them from affecting you in the same way and you can also gain a greater understanding of the contents of your own thoughts.
Often this is described as ‘watching the thoughts go past like clouds’. The idea is not to engage with them or let them affect you but simply to observe them and to later reflect on how they might impact on your happiness.
By doing this, mindfulness allows us to take some time out of our stressful day to remove ourselves from our thoughts and thereby get some rest and relaxation.
But it’s not really just about meditation. What mindfulness also means is being constantly aware of your own thoughts as you go throughout your day. Some people will tell you to be ‘mindful’ of your body, or ‘mindful’ of your environment. But really what you should be focusing on is just what you’re mindful of.
Next time you go out for a nice walk with family, or next time you do something else that you should be enjoying, just make a note of whether you’re really focused on what you’re doing and whether you’re actively engaging in it… or is your mind elsewhere? Are you actually worrying about work? Or stressing about other things?
Mindfulness teaches us to be more aware of our thoughts as that way, we can decide that we’re not going to let them affect us and because that way we can then make the conscious effort to refocus and to decide to be happy.
Mindfulness is not mysticism or linked to religion and it’s not a cure-all therapeutic technique. All this is a tool and better yet, a state of mind. With practice, you can learn to be more in-tune with your own thoughts and that can change everything.
How To Use Mindfulness To Be Happier
Mindfulness can mean a great many things depending on who you ask. Essentially this is a tool and like any tool, it can be used in numerous different ways.
Specifically, mindfulness can be used to change what we focus on and to change the way we think. Too often we don’t pay attention to what’s going on inside our mind and that makes us victims of our emotions. We can be in a beautiful place doing fun things with friends, only to find ourselves thinking about work and getting stressed – not actually enjoying the situation we’re in.
Likewise, we can have everything we could possibly want in life and not be happier. And it all comes down to what we choose to focus on.
This is why you can use mindfulness, among other things, as a brilliant tool for making yourself happier and more at ease with your life.
Sometimes this is referred to as a ‘gratitude attitude’. All that effectively means, is that you’re putting yourself in a state of mind where you’re focussing on the things you’re grateful for and you’re happy for. And one very easy way to do that is simply to take a time out at the end of each day to write down those things and to think about them.
Try and end every day by writing three things that you’re thankful for and reflecting on them. Where possible, try to make these different things each day and avoid repetition.
Sometimes these will be obvious things: like your health, like the people you love and like the fact that you have access to food. Focussing on the people you love in particular is a great way to be more grateful to people and this can end up actually improving your relationship with them.
But at the same time, you’re also going to think about those smaller silly things. Maybe you’re grateful for the delicious cereal you’ll have tomorrow? Maybe you’re grateful for the fact that there’s a new film coming out that you’re very excited about? These are all legitimate things!
Now try to carry this over into your daily life. Each time you think of something you don’t have, or that isn’t the way you want it, try to think as well about the things you’re grateful for and what you do have. Don’t have that big flat screen TV? Well just be grateful you have a computer that can watch pretty much any film you can dream of on demand.
Likewise, you should try and think about language and the way you talk – which can have a big impact on your gratitude as well as on the way that other people think about you. For example, trying to stop complaining is something that is very worthwhile. The next time you find yourself saying anything negative, try and follow it up with a positive point that counteracts it. You’ll feel happier and people will think of you as a more positive person they want to be around!
How To Start Mindful Meditation
Mindfulness is a tool that can be used for a few things. For starters, it can be used as a great form of meditation that gives us a break from all the chatter and noise of our daily lives. At the same time, it can also be used as a great way to become more in-tune with our own thoughts and feelings. And finally, it can be useful for addressing flaws in our thinking and correcting them with techniques such as CBT.
If you’re interested in giving this a go though, then it might seem a little daunting. The prospect of mindfulness is one that many people find off putting, as meditation is very often thought to be necessary linked with mysticism or with religion. Likewise, many people quickly become frustrated when they don’t see immediate results.
Read on then and we’ll look at how to start your first mindfulness session with the best chances of success.
Step 1. Breathe
The first step is simply to breathe. Breathing deeply in and out through the nose will help you to reduce stress levels by circulating more oxygen around your body and sending signals to your brain that you are in the ‘rest and digest state’. Cortisol decreases and brain activity slows.
Step 2. Concentrate on Your Senses
The next thing to do is to concentrate on your senses. This is a good way to start bringing the attention inward, so just listen out for any sounds that you normally miss, notice what temperature you are and think about the smells you can detect. Don’t ‘look’ for sounds, just let them come to you. You’ll likely find there is much more in your soundscape than you initially realized.
Step 3. Use Body Scan Meditation
The next step is to turn your awareness in even more and use something called ‘body scan’ meditation. This means that you’re now concentrating on your own body and in particular, how it feels. Start from your head and face and notice the muscles that are contracted. Move down through your neck, shoulders, arms and all the way to your toes.
Finally, return your attention to your chest and how it rises and falls as you breathe. Now you’re going to count your breaths for a while to allow the thoughts to become still.
Step 4. Let Your Mind do What it Wants
Finally, you’re going to allow your mind to do whatever it wants. That means allowing it to wander, allowing it to sit still: whatever. The point is that you are going to remain detached from the flow of thoughts and while you might notice them, you’re not going to get ‘caught up’ in them. When you notice yourself getting lost, simply bring yourself calmly back to the center.
Don’t apply any pressure on yourself during this process. Don’t expect immediate results and don’t worry if you need to stop to itch. The whole point is to just allow yourself a gentle break and the more you push for results, the less likely they are to come.