Have you ever had difficulty remembering the last paragraph of a book you just read – or perhaps even where you were just a few minutes ago? Have you walked in a particularly beautiful spot, yet missed the breath-taking scenery because you were so caught up thinking about past or future events.
In a world in which stress, illness or excessive demands in our professional and/or private lives make it difficult to find time to breathe and reflect on what we do, mindfulness has been suggested as a technique to take a break from being constantly preoccupied with what’s on our mind.
Mindfulness is the presence of mind to see things and situations as they really are.
The tradition and science behind mindfulness
The concept of mindfulness has its roots in Buddhism and as such has been around for more than 2,500 years. In the Buddhist tradition, mindfulness is the presence of mind to see things and situations as they really are, not as we would like them to be. It means to have a clear understanding and awareness of our thoughts, sensations, actions, and surroundings without emotional and conceptual attachments. In this tradition, mindfulness allows us to evaluate situations, actions and people more objectively. But the advantage of mindfulness goes further than objectivity. Combined with patience and compassion, mindfulness can be helpful to reduce anxiety and prevent ourselves being carried away in stressful situations.
Modern science has begun to acknowledge that being more mindful may have positive effects. Findings in psychological and neuro-scientific studies suggest that practising mindfulness may reduce the psychological symptoms often accompanying severe illnesses. It may also help to deal with chronic pain, as well as benefit those who experience mood and anxiety disorders. In addition, several studies have considered how mindfulness may make it easier for us to cope with stressful situations. The outcome suggests that adopting a regular mindfulness practice may well improve our ability to concentrate, as well as our attentional performance, especially in stressful situations.
What keeps us from being more mindful?
If mindfulness has so many positive possibilities, why isn’t this something more of us apply every day? Because, as with many things, it takes effort and practice to develop mindfulness to the extent that it’s at our disposal when we need it.
There are a few, simple ways to develop a more mindful attitude towards ourselves and life around us.
The practice of mindfulness
Traditionally, learning to be mindful of your breathing is the first task set to people who are interested in learning meditation.
If you’d like to try this, here are some basic guidelines: Find a quiet spot where you will not be disturbed (turn off any phones, TVs etc.), adopt a comfortable position in which you can sit still for a while, and try to follow each breath – how you breathe in and how you breathe out. In your mind, follow the sensation of your stomach rising and falling. Try to focus on breathing naturally for 10 minutes or so.
Reading these instructions, you may not realize that our breathing is actually a useful starting point to practise mindfulness because we normally pay no attention to it – we take it for granted. Yet you will realize that focusing on something as subtle as our breathing is actually a challenge. Your thoughts will wander off time and time again: What’s for dinner? I didn’t write that email! Did I pack lunch for the kids?
What we firstly need to understand is that this is common when trying to learn mindfulness. It’s difficult for most of us to let go of what occupies the mind.
Secondly we should remember that our minds have been conditioned by the lives we lead, and that we take in ever more information in ever shorter periods of time. We’re no longer used to focussing on just one thing. Especially not on something as subtle and ever-present as our breathing. The thing to do is acknowledge that the mind has wandered and return to focussing on our breathing. It is important to do this without bemoaning our lack of concentration; in fact noticing a distracted state of mind is in itself moment of mindfulness. Be prepared to do this many times before being able to remain focused on your breathing.
Mindfulness exercises for a normal day
A more practical way to think a little differently is to take advantage of the many repetitive tasks we routinely do as we go through our day. For example how we brush our teeth, how we dress, how we put on and take off our shoes, how we wash our hands, how we walk up and down the stairs, how well we listen to others.
You may now think: How can being aware of brushing my teeth be helpful? Consider the examples above as an exercise to keep your awareness on what you’re doing and not follow your train of thought, which might be on something entirely different. Being more mindful of repetitive tasks will eventually increase your ability to concentrate on what you are doing the present moment and thus gain a better understanding on what you do, say and think – which is the underlying benefit of mindfulness. By practicing this on simple, repetitive tasks, we may be able to bring exactly this awareness to more difficult situations.
Every one of us probably has regular challenges in our lives. People we find difficult to deal with, presentations we have to give, demanding families… Being mindful in these situations may allow us to be more aware of our reaction. In the beginning we may only reflect on what happened in hindsight. But with time, and more mindfulness in our daily life, we may be able to actively approach situations like this with more understanding; reacting slightly less irrational and thereby making life a little bit easier for ourselves and the people around us.
There are many approaches today that teach mindfulness and each may have a slightly different focus or technique. Whichever you choose depends on how much time you have and which teaching suits your personality best. If you are interested, you can go online and find a teacher. With a little practice, becoming more mindful may well contribute to finding more peace of mind.