Mindfulness is the practice of having greater awareness and of being more present in our lives.
The ability to be mindful requires that we place and hold our attention where we want it.
It is the ability to switch off the running commentary of our minds and to return to the present moment.
We need to be able to perceive things, including our own thoughts and feelings, much more clearly. This takes hard work and practice, it is something we can work on all day long.
We don’t have to spend hours sitting cross-legged in a meditation hall if we are to become more mindful.
When our mind wanders away into daydreams, or ruminations about the past or future, we are no longer in the present moment. This can be easy to detect when we are lost in fantasies about the future, or reliving past conversations.
However, it is much more difficult while we live our life moment by moment and the distractions are much less obvious
One of the key skills of mindfulness is awareness. We need to be able to maintain our awareness so that when our mind wanders, we can bring it back to the here and now.
The more we practice this, the easier it gets.
Some people believe that the art of mindfulness lies in having an empty mind. However, this is not practical, as “the mind secretes thoughts like the liver secretes bile.”
The true art of mindfulness lies in becoming aware when we are no longer present in the current moment. If our mind is elsewhere we will miss so much of the richness of our lives.
The human brain is dependent on the stimuli that it receives in order to interpret events, and then to make sense of the world around us. Although the vast majority of this information is from the outside world, we also provide stimulus to our brain through the processes of our own thinking.
There are three main steps to making sense of outside stimuli.
- The body has to detect a stimulus and recognise what it is.
- The stimulus has to be identified. Whether it is a touch, the sound of music or a braking car, a smell, or perhaps a thought about the past or future.
- The last stage is what I like to call editorialisation. This is the process by which we add our own commentary and opinions to what body has noticed. We make judgements whether we believe something is either good or bad. We make up our minds whether it is something that we like or dislike. We worry about questions such as “does it mean I am clever or stupid?”
This personal dialogue provides a running commentary about the incoming stimuli, and generates a whole new set of sensations. It is possible for our thoughts about the events in our lives to generate strong emotional responses.
Often this additional commentary means that we end up a long way from where we started, when our body first noticed the stimulus.
When we make judgements of this nature, we are to a certain extent, checking out from much of our lives. There are many things that we might see as boring or a waste of time, perhaps things that annoy us about other people’s behaviours, or things that we find burdensome or emotionally uncomfortable. When these sorts of things happen, it is not surprising that we might prefer to be elsewhere.
Yet, by being mentally absent, we will miss so much of what is going on. It is in these everyday activities that the opportunity to practice mindful attention, and learning to focus our concentration where we wish, comes into its own.
When we are mindful, simple activities become both more pleasant and more interesting than we might otherwise expect. Even those activities which we usually find onerous, can reveal a much richer experience than we might have expected from listening to our inner commentator.
Vacuuming the carpet, or doing the washing up, can take on a whole new complexion. A much wider focus results in a much broader and rewarding experience.
One thing that we will all discover when we adopt a mindful approach to living, is just how much of our time is wasted.
- Making pointless judgements.
- Fretting about silly things that we can’t change about the past, or worrying about things that will never happen in our future.
- We might spend a lot of time going over last night’s television plot lines.
- My personal favourites is all about coming up with the perfect comeback to some remark made by somebody weeks, if not years, ago.
As we become aware of just how little of our mental life is spent productively, and how much trivia we allow into our consciousness, it can create a strong drive towards living a much more mindful, and rewarding life.
Being truly present and experiencing the here and now as it happens, soon comes to be much more appealing than letting our day pass with the monotonous buzz of silliness and drama that passes for normal consciousness.
When we become aware that we are no longer present, but instead lost in thoughts about something else, we should first acknowledge this to ourselves. “Oops, my mind has wandered again.” Then we can decide which is more important, the contents of our current stream of consciousness, or choosing to become more actively involved with those things that we choose to give our attention, and what is going on in our current surroundings.
When our minds wander away into fantasies and commentaries, it is important to focus our awareness, and to recognise this, then we can bring our attention back under control and end them as quickly as is appropriate. Remembering that not all fantasy and commentary is necessarily bad.
Once we are able to recognise what is happening, we can return our focus to the present and experience what is happening right now, rather than leaving it on our own distorted version of what is happening.
Too often we make judgements about things being good or bad based upon the emotions triggered by these personalised commentaries.
Mindfulness is not something that we are automatically good at. Like any new skill it takes practice and perseverance. This can be done by exercising momentary mindfulness as we go about our lives, as well as through formal mindfulness practices such as meditation.
Different ways of doing this suit people at different times in their lives. It is often worth starting the process with small steps and easy practices before deciding whether it is something we wish to involve in our whole life.
A one-minute mindfulness exercise.
This is a simple mindfulness exercise that we can do at any time during the day. When we are walking, waiting at the traffic lights, or perhaps when we are sitting at home.
For sixty seconds decide to focus purely on one thing, the breath is something we have with this all the time, and makes a useful focus for this exercise. Sixty seconds may not sound long, but sometimes it can feel like an eternity, especially when we are trying to do something unfamiliar.
Keeping the eyes open, we focus on our breathing. Do not force our breathing or alter it in any way. Observe the breath as it goes in and out in a natural way. Hopefully, as we do this, we will develop clearer attention and focus that we can carry into the rest of our day.
Become aware of the breath, feel the belly move in and out as we breathe, or focus on the sensation of the air passing through our nostrils, sensing it alternatively as warm or cold, depending on whether we are breathing out or in.
As our thoughts wander, which they surely will, gently acknowledge that the attention is no longer on the breath, where we want it to be, and bring it back to our breathing. Do this gently and without judging.
Every time we do this we increase our ability to pay attention and to focus. We will gradually start to find it easier to notice as our mind wanders away from the present moment, leaving us open to what is happening both around us and within our mind.
Over time we can gradually increase the duration of this exercise. The decision to pay conscious awareness is one of the basic foundations of any mindfulness practice. When we practice mindfulness of breathing as a meditation technique it is the same exercise, one but one that we choose to sustain for a much longer period.
The main aim is to return our focus to the chosen object of awareness each and every time the mind wanders, it is not about beating ourselves up or becoming frustrated.
This is not a competition, and the only person who really knows how we are doing is our self. Like any muscle in the body, mindfulness benefits from regular use and training. This enables us to hold in our awareness the things we wish to pay attention to, deliberately and without judging.
For further information about mindfulness meditation I would suggest a visit to
Assuming it is up and running again after being hacked by an Islamic group.
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