What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to the present moment with an attitude of curiosity, openness, and non-judgment. It involves being fully aware of what is happening within and around us, including our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and the environment. It's the opposite of daydreaming or getting lost in thought.
One of the powers of mindfulness is that anyone can do it, almost anywhere, and at anytime. You can be mindful while washing the dishes, walking your dog, sitting at your desk, sipping some tea, or just breathing.
How is mindfulness different from meditation and relaxation?
You may hear meditation, mindfulness and relaxation used interchangeably. While they have similarities, they are different things.
- Meditation is a broader practice that involves focusing our mind to quiet the constant stream of thoughts and distractions that arise in our everyday lives. Meditation can use many different methods to achieve this goal, including repeating a mantra, focusing on an object, or practicing mindfulness.
- Relaxation is about releasing tension and promoting calmness. Rather than focusing on the present moment, you might relax by listening to music or reading a book.
The benefits of practising mindfulness
Mindfulness has been shown to have real benefits in a range of different aspects of life, including:
- Reducing stress and anxiety
- Improving concentration
- Enhancing emotional wellbeing
- Increasing your self-awareness
- Improving sleep
- Increasing resilience
- Lowering blood pressure and improving physical health.
The benefits of mindfulness come over time. While you’ll most likely feel calmer after each time you practice mindfulness, the real benefits only start to accumulate over time, and with practice, so try and stick with it!
- Break negative thinking patterns
Sometimes our minds get stuck in a loop of negative thoughts, where we can go deeper and deeper into thoughts that just make us feel worse. This can look quite different for different people, but might include;
- Catastrophising and imaging the worst possible situation, without taking account of how likely it is, or what other possibilities might exist.
- Repeatedly criticising or judging ourselves for things we might have done or not done
- Seeing things in absolutes - as either all good or all bad, with no shades of grey
- Drawing broad conclusions about people or things based on a single negative event or experience
- Focusing on the negatives and ignoring the positives about people or experiences.
These negative thoughts can turn into thinking patterns that we fall into more easily over time, and can become all-consuming. These thinking patterns also usually make us feel physically worse; increasing our heart rate and blood pressure, causing us to tense up, and even creating digestive problems and impairing our immune system.
Mindfulness is a powerful tool to tackle these negative thinking patterns.
When we practise mindfulness, we deliberately interrupt our thoughts by first becoming aware of them, and then gently bringing our attention back to the present moment.
- Improve how you feel and make better choices
- Find more joy in life
- Get better sleep
“I felt depressed when looking back on my past and I felt anxious about my future, so I started practising being present.”
How do I get started?
Although mindfulness is simple, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Most of us have spent years or decades jumping constantly from one thought to the next, every waking moment of our lives. Slowing down and eventually stopping the thought-express takes time and practice, but is something that everyone can do.
The good news is that while it takes time to master and see the biggest benefits, practicing mindfulness can help you feel better even from the first time.
In part 1, choose the type of mindfulness you’d like to practice. You can practice mindfulness during almost any activity, from washing the dishes to going for a walk. However if you’re just beginning, the more complicated the activity, the harder it is to remain ‘mindful’, so we’d recommend starting with something simple. Here are a few suggestions:
- Breathing mindfulness
- Take a seat in a comfortable position
- Close your eyes, and place your hands comfortably in your lap, on the armrests, or on your legs
- Deliberately let go of any tension in your body, starting around your eyes, and then downwards through your face, neck, arms, torso and legs
- Bring your attention to your breath
- Don’t control how you’re breathing, just try to be aware of it. If you’re breathing through your nose, can you notice whether the air is mostly flowing through your right or your left nostril?
- Pick a sensation related to your breath - it might be the feeling of the air passing through your nostrils, the sensation on your top lip, or your chest/belly rising and falling
- Try and keep your attention focused on that sensation.
If breathing mindfulness doesn’t sound like it’s for you, here’s another couple of options:
- Eating mindfulness
- Showering mindfulness
Part 2 is the ‘next step’ that applies to all forms of mindfulness, whether you’re practicing mindful breathing, eating, showering, or anything else. Continue on from here, once you’ve finished the steps in each of the examples above.
Now comes the hard part!
- Pretty quickly, you’ll notice a thought has entered your head, that’s not related to whatever it is you’re doing. You might be wondering what’s on TV tonight, thinking ‘this is boring’, or ‘my right knee hurts’. By the time you notice yourself thinking, you might have already had a whole bunch of thoughts.
- When you notice that you’re thinking, don’t get frustrated with yourself! Each time you NOTICE a thought, that’s like the ‘bicep-curl’ of mindfulness - you should feel good for noticing, because that’s the hard part!
- Once you’ve noticed you’re thinking, let go of the thought (whatever it is!) and gently return your attention to the activity and the sensations you were noticing before. Your breathe, the food, the shower.
- Keep your focus on that sensation, until you notice yourself thinking again. Then repeat steps 2 & 3.
- Repeat until you’ve had enough.
- The first few times you try mindfulness, you’ll hopefully notice a few effects:
- You feel more calm and relaxed afterwards
- You realise there’s a whole world of feelings and sensations in a really simple daily activity you normally don’t notice
- You notice how easily your mind jumps straight into ‘thinking’ mode, without you even realising straight away
- You notice how quickly your thoughts become totally different to what you’re doing, and jump from one to another
- After you’ve been practicing mindfulness for a few times, you might notice:
- Once you start to become a bit of a mindfulness champ, and practice regularly, you’ll probably notice:
If you’d like to go deeper in exploring mindfulness, or would like a helping hand, Smiling Mind offer a range of free videos and guides developed by psychologists and educators.