What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness isn't something elusive and 'out there', it's an innate quality we all possess. Put simply, it's being awake and present to our lives as they unfold, moment-to-moment rather than constantly being caught up in future worries or past memories, and with a sense of openness and curiosity to things as they are. With mindfulness, we're aware of our thoughts, body sensations and emotions, without becoming either overwhelmed by them or ignoring them and pushing them away. The beauty of this is that we begin to have more choice and control. Because we become practiced at uncoupling what's happening from how we think and feel about it, we can begin to break habitual patterns of reactivity. This works particularly well with our usual and often unconscious relationship to stress, anxiety, depression and physical health issues- we learn to respond skilfully and with kindness, rather than react and get sucked into a familiar cycle of negative or self-critical thinking, physical tension and more stress. This is the foundation of good self-care.
Mindfulness and resilience
When we slow down and become more mindful, we begin to notice that we are often stuck in our heads and unaware of the direct, sensory experiences happening in our body. In practising mindfulness, we can begin to attend to our thoughts, feelings and body sensations with a warm, kindly interest which is quite different to our usual judging, analysing, comparing or wishing it were otherwise. This is particularly powerful when applied to challenging situations or stress - we make space for what's there because it's already there and therefore impossible to change in this moment. On a physiological level, this has quite a profound effect of activating the soothing, calming, 'approach' part of our nervous system and quietening our stress response. This helps us to meet our own shortcomings and difficulties, as well as life's challenges, with sensitivity and gentleness. This is effectively the practice of self-kindness, which is now understood to be one of the key factors in developing resilience.
What we discover is that when we spend more time in the present moment, even the many moments of our mundane, ordinary activities, life becomes richer, more interesting and less stressful. We can more fully enjoy the wonderful, easy, joyful moments, more easily hold the difficult situations with ease and balance and stay awake to those little everyday things that make up the rich fabric of our lives but which pass us by when we are operating on autopilot.
How do I start practising mindfulness?
There are lots of ways to start practising mindfulness but completing a Mindfulness course with a qualified and accredited teacher is probably the best way to embed mindfulness into your life. Learning to be fully present is a skill and like any skill it takes practice. In our daily lives, mindfulness encourages us to stay present as best we can to thoughts, feelings and body sensations as we move through our daily activities. This is called 'informal practice' or 'mindfulness in everyday life'. There are also 'formal' practices', which are done in a comfortable sitting or lying position and become part of our daily self-care routine. These are precious opportunities to slow ourselves down, step out of our habitual 'doing mode' and cultivate more of a 'being mode' where in the quiet space we have created for ourselves, we become familiar with how our minds and bodies work, and from there how we can begin to free ourselves up from unhelpful habits.
These are the formal practices:
Body scan meditation
Mindfulness of breathing meditation
Mindfulness of thoughts, sounds and feelings meditation
Kindness to self and others meditation
These different practices give us a variety of ways of approaching simply being with ourselves and becoming more aware and awake to our present moment experience. We are all different and what works for one person might not suit another. The variety of practices give us different ways of anchoring our attention on what's happening now in our mind, body and heart and a direct path to 'coming home' to ourselves. When you take part in a mindfulness course, you will learn all of these practices and from there adopt the ones which work best for you. But it DOES take practice. Living a mindful life is a radical commitment to falling awake again and again to what poet Mary Oliver describes as "your one wild and precious life".