What is Mindfulness and How Does it Work?
Maybe you've heard the term 'mindfulness' - awareness, being present, and mindfulness all refer to the same thing. So what is mindfulness and why should you care about it?
I'm going to be cliché for just a minute here and start with a dictionary definition of mindfulness, bear with me:
mindfulness /ˈmʌɪn(d)f(ʊ)lnəs/ : a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations
Okay, that's actually a better definition than what I thought it was going to be when I first looked it up.
Being mindful is simultaneously the easiest possible thing you can do and also the most difficult. Think about it - when was the last time your mind was truly quiet and you were focusing all your attention on the present moment? For example, when you're having a conversation with somebody, your mind is usually elsewhere. Even though you might physically still be able to hold the conversation, what's your mind doing? My mind is usually operating somewhere along the lines of:
"Ugh it's kind of chilly in here, where's that breeze coming from? Was that a bug on my foot? I hope she doesn't realize I haven't washed my hair in 10 days. Her sister's name is Michelle? My mom's name is Michelle! I wonder how my mom's doing, did she have class today? I should call her soon."
While my response to the person I'm talking to might be: "Oh cool! Yeah, I loved Byron too."
It's not that I was ignoring that person (necessarily), it's just that we're so used to having that constant stream of thought running through our minds that we've learned to function in our daily lives with it switched on. Being mindful is about learning how to turn that stream of thoughts OFF. Believe it or not, it does not have to constantly be on. And meditation is a great way to start to learn how to turn it off!
Most people have experienced fleeting moments of total awareness without even trying, however! Think about any time you REALLY had your adrenaline going: if you play sports, maybe during a big match where you were totally immersed in, if you've ever participated in any extreme activity (sky-diving, bungee jumping, etc), or if you've ever been rendered speechless by an over-whelming nature scene (Grand Canyon, Uluru, or any other of the countless places in nature). For a moment, however brief, you are totally immersed in what is happening and had that thought stream turned off.
Being mindful is just figuring out how to translate that feeling into your everyday life. Being so in the moment you're living that nothing else matters. Like the definition says, you are still able to "calmly acknowledge one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations," but you don't necessarily give them power or a place in your mind. Kind of like when someone brings up a sensitive topic that you don't feel like talking about and you respond with, "I don't feel like getting into that right now." Do the same when your brain tries to introduce a new thought!
This isn't something that's brand new - this concept has been prevalent in Eastern culture and religion for thousands of years. We're just a little bit slow over on the Western side of the world. There will be more in future posts on how to quiet that thought stream and resources to learn more, but I just wanted to introduce this incredibly simple, but powerful idea to people who may not have heard of it. Admittedly, this is relatively new to me as well so we can learn together.
So why should we care so much about being aware or practicing mindfulness? Because quieting your mind is a great feeling! It really allows you to appreciate each moment that you're living in without constantly being worried about the future, re-opening the past, or cluttering your mind with pervasive thoughts.
It is hard at first, but with a little bit of practice, it gets much much easier - and is something that has the potential to change your life in unexpected ways :)