A brief introduction to the concept of mindfulness
In our busy schedules the thought of taking time out to simply “navel gaze” seems particularly unlikely and not the best use of our scarcest resource - time. There is so much hype around the current buzzword Mindfulness that it is hardly surprising it is viewed by most sceptics as another fad that will pass once we discover an alternative quick fix solution for our stress/anxiety and general state of overwhelm.
Perhaps a brief glimpse into the longevity of this life altering habit could give us pause to consider it more seriously.
Dating back centuries from the traditions of a number of Eastern religions, the practice of meditation was brought to the West by early explorers of Zen and Buddhist religions also at times referred to as “hippies”. During their travels to the East to find themselves (not quite sure how they lost themselves half way across the world, but that is a discussion for another day) in the 60’s and 70’s, some of those early pioneers are still actively spreading the word today as the founding fathers of the modern Mindfulness movement. Although meditation is often thought to be a Buddhist practice, mindfulness is proudly non-secular and whilst it may encompass certain Buddhist philosophies it is not affiliated to one particular religion. The most commonly used definition of Mindfulness comes from one of these founding fathers of the mindfulness movement, John Kabat-Zinn who defines Mindfulness as:
“the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally”
John K-Z incidentally is also the guy who brought us what is today known as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. While he originally developed this program in a medical setting, it has been extensively researched and found to be remarkably effective in chronic pain and stress management. More than 30 years later, this well researched mediation method is practiced in many contexts throughout the world and has since been adapted to include Mindfulness Based Interventions effective for the treatment and (prevention of relapse) for depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse, personality disorders, post-traumatic stress, enhancing work performance, enhancing sports performance and improving general wellbeing.
That definition sounds simple, doesn’t it? However, if you have ever taken a short trip, for example your journey to work in the morning, and reached your destination without any idea of how you got there and without noticing the actual drive itself, you would have experienced the elusiveness of this present moment awareness. Don’t panic, this is not an indication of early dementia, but rather evidence of a very common affliction known as mindlessness. Our minds are amazing entities and can perform all sorts of miracles, not the least of which is sifting through millions of pieces of information daily and making decisions continuously - often saving us from the numerous pitfalls of the modern world at any given time. So, as a consequence we have evolved to be these continuously thinking beings. In itself, this is not a bad or good thing, it is simply what our minds do as a result of evolution – problem solve. However, it does result in us losing huge chunks of time as we meander down these rabbit holes of information, often only to find that switching them off or even slowing them down, has become more difficult than we'd like to admit.
So, if it helps at all, the practice of Mindfulness itself is not an attempt to calm or control the thoughts or clear the mind itself but merely strengthening the capacity to allow those thoughts, ideas, fantasies and daydreams to be as they are. Rather, gaining the skill (yes, it is a skill that can be learned like any other) not to get caught up in those mind meanderings but to let them come and go while you continue to focus your attention on the task at hand.
Again, a deceptively simple concept and I encourage you to dip a toe into this metaphorical meditation pool by taking a moment to give it a try:
Sitting quietly in a way that is comfortable for you (twisted pretzel position is not a prerequisite), with your back straight but not rigid, your shoulders relaxed and your arms along the sides of your body, your hands at your sides or resting in your lap. Bring all of your attention to the breath in your nostrils. Try to stay with one single breath all the way for the full length of the inhale and then the exhale – no special way to breathe, simply allow your breath to decide its own rhythm. If you have managed to follow one breath all the way – Congratulations! You have started to meditate… If you noticed how difficult it is to stay with that one breath, congratulations, you've also started to meditate. And if you zoned out on that breath entirely, not to worry, you always have the next breath to practice on, so simply start again.
NOTE: If you have trouble accessing your breath, the same exercise can be done by bringing your attention to sensations in the feet or the hands, or any other part of the body that feels fairly neutral as an anchor for your attention. You can also use your sense of hearing as an anchor. Experiment with each of these and see what is most accessible to you.