Mindfulness is a word that’s bandied around a lot, and linked to everything from yoga to stress in the workplace. People who come to see me may have heard of it but often they aren’t clear about what it is. This post explains what I mean when I talk about mindfulness, both in my sessions and in these blog posts.
Firstly I’d like to dispel some of the myths and preconceptions about mindfulness that I’ve come across. It doesn’t need you to set aside large amounts of time, to sit cross legged on a mat, and to subscribe to a particular religious belief. In fact mindfulness can be practised during a short bus or train journey, just sitting as normally in your seat, and without any indication to other passengers about what you’re doing. You may well have sat next to someone being mindful and not even have known it.
As well as not requiring you to be religious nor will mindfulness make you less focused – in fact it helps people to have greater clarity around what matters and the actions they take. Finally, mindfulness doesn’t give you a rose-tinted view of the world or make you a pushover. The reality is that mindfulness actually gives people the resilience to weather difficult times and situations.
Essentially mindfulness means being as fully aware and engaged in the present moment as possible. One example given by an early proponent was of washing the dishes mindfully. This means not thinking about the meal you’ve just cooked and how it could have been better, and not thinking about the next thing you want to do when you’ve finished. Washing the dishes mindfully means allowing yourself to engage fully with what you’re doing – the heat of the water, the scent of the washing up liquid, the squeak of cloth against the clean plates.
Mindfulness has the very direct benefit of allowing your mind to quieten, rather than being taken up with revisiting past events or rehearsing those in the future. It allows you to become aware of the stream of thoughts, emotions, memories and sensations that pass through all of our minds and learn to stand outside of the stream rather than inside it.
Part of developing the ability and habit of standing outside of your thoughts is that it helps you to become aware of the ways in which you can become engaged and entangled in them, and realise how these can be unhelpful. You learn that your thoughts are “mental events” and not necessarily valid, and that those thoughts and your reactions to them don’t have to be in control of you. The final element of mindfulness is self-compassion, and learning not to judge yourself or your thoughts, but to simply accept them and let them pass.
The benefits of mindfulness include making you more resilient to feelings of anxiety and stress, and will allow them to dissipate more quickly when they do arise. Mindfulness will make you more self-aware, more able to control your reactions and to recognise and stop self-defeating behaviour. These changes, the improved concentration and focus, and the better relationships that they bring, make positive differences in work and in peoples’ personal lives.
Whilst the techniques of mindfulness – focusing attention on the present moment, returning your attention when it wanders, becoming aware of your thoughts, being self-compassionate – don’t need you to set aside large periods of time, they do need patience and persistence to develop.
One of the things I do that helps people to develop these habits and skills is a session where they imagine standing on a beach, with a bunch of helium balloons in their hand being tagged gently in the breeze. As they become aware of a thought or sensation they place it in a balloon and let it go, watching it start to lift and then rise higher and higher, more and more quickly, until it disappears. Through this they learn that identifying their thoughts and letting them go is both possible and enjoyable.