In my last blog post, I focused on stress, and I touched on how to build resilience so we can adapt well and bend rather than break in the face of stress and adversity. I also introduced the Healthy Mind Platter, designed by professor Dan Siegel and Dr David Rock which outlines seven daily essential mental activities for optimum mental health which can increase resilience. One of these daily essential mental activities is ‘Time In’ which includes mindfulness meditation. I would be amazed if anyone reading this hasn’t heard of Mindfulness Meditation given how much attention it’s getting right now, but I do wonder how many people really understand what Mindfulness is? This question inspired me to write a series of blogs over the next several months focusing on different aspects of Mindfulness, starting this month with a basic overview!
What is Mindfulness, a short history
Mindfulness started in India and came from the wisdom of the budhha’s teachings around 2600 years ago. Mindfulness is foundational to all buddhist traditions and is taught as a way of developing understanding and insight into the nature of the human mind and suffering. The body of teaching came to the west through the insight or vipassana tradition whose lineage is mainly from Burma, Thailand and Sri Lanka. Anyone interested in this history may wish to look at Mark Colemans book “From Suffering to Peace’ which is being released this month and provides a non-jargon description of the buddhist origins of mindfulness.
In recent years Mindfulness has burgeoned into secular settings, including psychology, health care, business, sports, education and prisons as people have started to scientifically investigate and experience for themselves the benefits that can come from such a practice. The research is still in its infancy so caution should be taken around seeing it as a panacea for everything or over inflating it’s benefits. However, neuropsychological research is starting to see some significant benefits arising from a regular mindfulness meditation practice. If this is an area of interest for you or for those sceptics out there you may wish to read Altered Traits by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson or Buddhas Brain by Rick Hanson which outlines this emerging research.
What is Mindfulness?
In exploring definitions of mindfulness it is helpful to begin simply and add complexity over time. Bikkhu Bodhi (a buddhist translator) described it as clear awareness. This is sometimes referred to as bare awareness which is awareness of what is really happening without adding any layers onto this like judgements or resistance. When we don’t add layers we get to see what is happening (either internally or externally or both) with total clarity.
I recently heard a friend describe mindfulness through her own personal story of being at the beach and it resonated so much with me I want to share it with you. She was walking along a wild beach in Northern California with her brother when he suddenly spotted a hawk in a tree. My friend was struggling to see the Hawk so he passed her his binoculars to take a closer look. She couldn’t really make out anything until her brother told her about the ‘image stabilisation button’ (who knew such a thing existed)! As soon as she pressed this the image of the hawk became clear and there was nothing getting in the way of seeing the bird with total clarity. Well, mindfulness can work in a similar way, we can begin to see things clearly when we begin to cultivate mindful awareness.
How to be more mindful
Mindful practice is one way we can intentionally pursue mindful awareness. Jon Kabit Zinn uses the phrase ‘paying attention on purpose in the present moment and non-judgementally’. By the time we reach adulthood mindful awareness is not typically our natural mind state. In fact our minds are often likened to a puppy dog, easily pulled by stimulus. So for example, if you were to hear a loud noise whilst you are reading this your attention is very likely to wonder to the noise itself and you may even forget for a time that your intention is to read this! This is not paying attention on purpose as your attention has simply been grabbed by the noise. Our attention is grabbed all the time…by our thoughts, by sounds, by our phone notifications…so if I want to train your mind to be less scattered then you need to begin to ‘pay attention on purpose’.
Typically we start this ‘training’ by resting attention in a purposeful way to something like the breath (which to begin with is often experienced as way less interesting than the places we are used too placing our attention). If this sounds easy try sustaining your attention on your breath for 10 inhales and exhales and see what happens to your attention! But a wondering mind is not a bad thing, in fact it is a very natural thing especially if we don’t have a regular meditation practice! Therefore the key isn’t to stop the wondering mind, it is simply to notice when the mind has wondered and to begin again. Every time we catch the mind becoming distracted and redirect our attention back to an object of focus such as the breath we are in fact strengthening the muscle of purposeful attention. In this way we really cultivate the art (and science) of concentration/focused attention and over time can begin to stabilise the scattered mind.
The breath is just one example of what we can pay attention to. This may lead you to ask ‘what is there other than the breath to be aware of?’ The answer is ‘well everything really’! We can be aware of external experiences (such as where we are), internal experiences (such as the quality of our mind e.g. clear and focused or dull and sleepy; our emotional experience; our bodily experience). When we pay close attention to these things we may start to get much more curious, intimate and present with ourselves, with others and with life around us. We may develop a more spacious relationship with ourselves and others and observe rather than react to what’s happening within or around us so we can respond skilfully. But it really isn’t for me or anyone else to tell you what you may get from a mindfulness practice as this is something that needs to be explored and experienced for yourself, ideally with the guidance of someone who is well trained in this area.
Common misconceptions of mindfulness
I want to end this post by undoing some common misconceptions. Firstly, mindfulness is not about cultivating a special state, it is about seeing what state is here in this moment. Secondly mindfulness is not about controlling your mind or your experience, it is about seeing your mind and experience as it is in this moment. Thirdly, mindfulness is not about not thinking. It’s impossible to stop our minds thinking in the same way it’s impossible for people who can hear to stop our ears from hearing. It’s simply about knowing that you are thinking and if you are intending to direct your attention elsewhere to gently and kindly redirect your attention. Finally, mindfulness is not about being passive. We can still have firm boundaries and be very actively engaged in relationships and life and indeed mindfulness often helps us do just that!
In my next post, I will talk more about the facets that support mindfulness practice so this blog really ends with a comma rather than a full stop!
Written by Dr. Olivia Thrift – registered Counselling Psychologist and founder of The Psychology Company.