• Mindfulness needn't be restricted to rigid meditation routines, it can be implemented gently throughout the day

  • Gill Hasson explores how staying present could reduce feelings of anxiety and depression

You may think that being mindful requires an ability to completely clear your mind and go off into an altered state in an attempt to get to a better place. Not so; mindfulness does not involve complex meditation routines. Mindfulness is not about having an empty mind or suppressing thoughts and feelings. Nor does it require years of practice, sitting in the lotus position in a flowing white robe on a beautiful beach.

There’s nothing mystical about mindfulness. To be mindful simply means to be aware and engage with what’s happening right now. It’s about being in the moment.

If you’ve ever become absorbed in a crossword puzzle or a board game, sung your heart out or ‘lost’ yourself in a book or a film, a letter you were writing or work that you were doing—then you’ve experienced mindfulness; you’ve been totally in the moment.

Children are great role models for being in the moment. Watch children as they play; they’re not thinking about what happened yesterday, or what they’re going to do later today. They are simply absorbed in what they’re drawing, making or pretending to be.

When they’re upset, yell and cry—nothing else matters but what has upset them. They’ll cry about it, and then move on; the offending situation gone and forgotten.

And, if you’ve ever taken young children to the cinema, you’ll know that they find everything new and amazing. They stare at the bright lights in the foyer. They stare at everyone sitting around them. They move the seats up and down, gawp at the big screen and flinch when the loud music starts. They clutch at you when it gets scary and they laugh out loud when it’s funny. They live each moment fully.

Cats also show us how to live in the moment. When I watch our cat Norman, I’m sure he’s not thinking about the new brand of cat food he had earlier in the day or worrying about what’s for dinner. He’s absorbed in what’s happening right now. Norman simply lives from moment to moment.

You can become mindful at any moment. You can do it right now. Stop everything. Focus on what’s happening. What can you hear? What can you smell? Look straight head; what do you see? What can you feel? What can you taste?

Don’t give it any thought; you don’t need to like or dislike, approve or disapprove of what’s happening. You simply need to be aware of it. Even if nothing is there, just be aware of your breathing; the sensation of the air as it enters your nose or mouth and fills your lungs, and as it goes out again.

Your amazing mind

Does all this seem a bit pointless? How can this non-doing approach be of any value? Let me explain. 

The ability to think; to think back on past events and to think about the future—to plan ahead—is a feature that defines us as humans.

As well as being capable of thinking about things that are happening, we can think about

  • things that did and didn’t happen

  • things that have happened

  • things that might happen

  • things that may never happen at all.

But thinking is not always an unmitigated blessing. Too often, your thoughts can trap you; trap you in the past and trap you in the future.

If you’re ruminating about events and going back over them again and again, then you’re living in the past. You’re trapped there. Other times, you may be fretting about what lies ahead; anxious and worried, you’re trapped in the future. And all the time your mind is chattering with commentary or judgment.

There’s no time to experience what’s happening right now, because you’re distracted by thinking about what’s happening tomorrow or next week, or maybe you’re worrying about what you did or failed to do yesterday.

Even when nothing much is happening, something is happening. Thinking is happening. Rather than simply being aware and engaged with what’s happening, we’re thinking about what is—or is not—happening.

Thinking seems to be our default setting.

If you’ve ever tried to meditate, the first thing you will notice is that your mind has a life of its own. It just goes on and on thinking: planning, anticipating, worrying, liking, disliking, remembering, forgetting, criticising, judging and so on.

A study in 2010 found that people spend half of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re actually doing, and this mind-wandering typically makes them unhappy. The research, by psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert of Harvard University, used an iPhone app to gather 250,000 data points on people’s thoughts, feelings and actions as they went about their lives. 

They discovered that our minds are wandering about 46.9 percent of the time in any given activity, and the mind-wandering rate was at least 30 percent for all but one activity. The only activity that generally got people’s undivided attention was having sex.

The study discovered that people’s feelings of happiness had much more to do with where their mind was than what they were doing. People consistently reported being happiest when their minds were actually engaged and focused on what they were doing.

“A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind”, Killingsworth and Gilbert write. “The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.” 

The spiritual teacher and writer Eckhart Tolle agrees. In his book, The Power of Now, he suggests that your mind is a superb instrument if used correctly. Used incorrectly, however, it becomes destructive. “It is not so much that you use your mind wrongly—you usually don’t use it at all. It uses you. This is the disease. You believe that you are your mind. This is the delusion. The instrument has taken you over.”

Certainly, your mind can wander to good things: you can remember good times and anticipate forthcoming events. But this ability to think back to the past and forward to the future is not always an unmitigated blessing. Mind-wandering becomes a problem when you are ruing the past or worrying about the future. At its most extreme, concerns about the future can lead to anxiety disorders. And constantly dwelling on events and issues from the past can lead to depression.

The past is gone and the future isn’t here yet. What exists between past and future is the present moment. 

Gill Hasson is the author of Mindfulness: Be Mindful. Live in the Moment

Further reading

3 tips for mindful communication in intimate relationships

What are the benefits of a morning ritual?

7 key reflective questions to ask yourself

3 ways to practise mindfulness with your children