What Exactly Is Mindfulness?
Sunday 12th September marks Mindfulness Day
Therapist Clare Dudeney, who uses mindfulness as part of her therapy practice, explains what mindfulness is and how to get started
Mindfulness is quite simply offering your focus and attention to the here and now, a given moment, on purpose, without making judgements.
Let me introduce you to Malcolm. He’s my 2 year old Labrador Retriever. You can see him in the photo above.
Why am I showing you a picture of my dog in an article about mindfulness?
Well, because actually, he is a fantastic representation of the essence of mindfulness in action.
Malcolm, when he eats his breakfast, gives his entire attention to that experience. It’s as if it’s never happened before. As if it’s the first time he’s tasted, and indeed smelt, tripe.
Malcolm, when he goes for a walk, concentrates only on that walk. No distractions of the day come into that time for Malcolm. He just lives his best moments, haring around in the tall grass, throwing himself into the river, without much, if any, thought to the past, or the future.
Malcolm will sit in front of the fire on a cold winter’s afternoon and just watch the flames. The concentration he puts into this task is palpable. He’s just there, in that moment, watching the fire dance. You’d be hard pressed to bring his attention away from it…
You don’t have to be a monk or a celebrity to practise mindfulness. There’s nothing secret or mystical about how you can bring mindfulness into your life and your routine. It’s also not something you can really get wrong. The more you practise, the more familiar you can expect to become with your individual process and how that works for you.
There are so many ways to begin that experience. You could sit down with a cup of tea and drink it mindfully for a few minutes. How? By just noticing everything about that cup of tea and focussing your attention on it. The taste of the tea, the colour of it, the way the mug feels in your hand. When thoughts pop into your head, which they most certainly will do, you can just acknowledge each thought, choose not to make a judgement about it, and return your attention to the cup of tea.
That’s practising mindfulness. Once you begin practising it, the more ways you can find to incorporate it into your daily life with ease. Just like brushing your teeth.
So, that’s the simplicity of the practice of mindfulness, but why should we do it?
There’s ever growing research and evidence to suggest that practicing regular mindfulness has a positive impact on our overall wellbeing. It can increase life satisfaction, relaxation levels, improve our sleep patterns, productivity, concentration levels, as well as decrease our stress levels.
Here's some science on mindfulness
Mindfulness activates and thickens the prefrontal cortex and hippo-campus, which are the parts of the brain that deal with our memories and focus, whilst effectively shrinking the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that processes fears and anxiety. You’ve probably heard of the ‘fight or flight response’. That’s a part of our primal neurological make up which can be extremely useful to us when we’re in danger. However, this part of our brain can get over-sensitive to triggers, particularly if we are going through periods of anxiety or stress. We don’t need our ‘fight of flight response’ triggered in most of our daily circumstances because we’re not in actual danger. Regular mindfulness can help us to regain our natural rhythm here. Calming down our responses, reducing unnecessary or unhelpful reactivity, and making us less prone to panic.
The brain is like any other organ – exercising it will make it stronger. You could view mindfulness as your brain’s way of going to the gym, in fact.
Mindfulness in therapy
Mindfulness is a skill that can brought into the therapy room, practiced and learnt within the process of therapy. Insights discovered just from learning to be more present, and noticing our thoughts from a place of calm and non-judgement, can be hugely beneficial in making sense of what we want to challenge, explore, heal.
The wider picture
As with anything, the more we practice something, the more we learn about ourselves and what we’re practicing. With mindfulness, we are practicing the art of focussing our attention on the here and now. The more we do that, the more we can expect to see the ripple of positive effects this practice of focussing our attention has on many aspects of our lives. When we can bring about focussed attention, we are more open to receiving new information. We can sort out and sift through competing streams of information and thoughts that might be pressing us for attention, and we can stay with what feels important in that moment. Consider that, and how it could be beneficially applied across your personal and work relationships, home and professional responsibilities.
With both physical and emotional benefits, it’s hard to think of a reason why not to give mindfulness a try. With it being Mindfulness Day 2021, here are two types of quick and easy mindfulness you can try today. You don’t need anything (except yourself) to do these.
- SIMPLE BREATH
Find somewhere quiet for yourself for a minute or two, and sit or stand comfortably. Now, with your hand placed on your tummy, take some slow breaths in, and then out. As you do this, simply give your attention to the breath. Notice the breath. Feel it. Feel your hand as it rises and falls against your tummy. You can do this anywhere. If the bathroom is the only place that you can find some quiet, you can do it there! Location isn’t important. No props required.
- NOTICE THREE THINGS
Take a moment to notice something you can SEE, something you can HEAR, and something you can TOUCH. You might be on the bus, the train to work. You could be sat at your desk in the office. Again, no props required and location isn’t important. All you need to do is give your full attention to those three things, taking in as many details about them as you can, for a handful of moments.
With both of these exercises, it’s important to remember that your thoughts will interrupt you, and that is absolutely okay. Each time that happens, just acknowledge the thought before returning your focus to the exercise.
And that’s it. You could start today.
Through the practice of mindfulness we can learn to become less creatures of habit and circumstance, and more creatures of openness and choice.
Creatures like Malcolm.