Mindfulness practices are emerging as an amazing antidote to the more negative effects of the way we currently live in modern societies. To be mindful is to be in the ‘now’ – not re-hashing things that have happened in the past or creating scenarios about the future. It recognises that the only thing we really have control of is how we choose to think and act in the present moment. Mindfulness is a controlled state of awareness that allows you to be open and relaxed with your thoughts, sensations and feelings without judgment or attachment. It enables you to be an observer of your inner processes rather than being caught up and carried away by them.
The concept of mindfulness isn’t new but has been practiced through meditation for thousands of years. One of the modern authorities on mindfulness Jon Kabat-Zinn describes it as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally”.
In my way of thinking there are four key components to mindfulness practice that can be used to improve someone’s mental or emotional health:
- Becoming more aware of your thoughts and feelings in a non-judgmental way.
- Learning how to discriminate between helpful and unhelpful thoughts and feelings.
- Choosing not to get caught up in unhelpful thoughts and feelings.
- Learning how to let go of thoughts and feelings that do not serve the purpose of enhancing your life.
Mindfulness for mental and emotional health
Many of us are chronically stressed or anxious and feel pushed around by our mood states. In order to function in our increasingly busy world we have had to learn to multitask and this requires us to put many of our everyday actions, thoughts and feelings on autopilot – i.e. in the charge of the subconscious mind. Think about driving your car – you can drive from A to B with little awareness of what cars you passed, which lights you stopped at or what manoeuvers you made. At the same time you could be eating and/or talking on the phone or to a passenger. We may only snap into conscious awareness when something unexpected happens such as someone cutting in front of us.
This over-use of autopilot comes at great cost to our mental and emotional health because it leaves us with impaired awareness of our internal states. Unhelpful, untrue or painful feelings, thoughts and emotions can be left to grow and fester because we are too distracted to notice them early and nip them in the bud. These include things like self-criticism or self-loathing, negative and pessimistic thinking, indecision, procrastination and emotional triggers. These thoughts and feelings live in the shadows of the subconscious mind and become hard to identify and manage unless we can bring them into our conscious awareness.
Our mind generates tens of thousands of thoughts a day so you can imagine where they take us if we can’t find a way to filter them effectively! Ultimately, mindfulness practices allow you to bring unhelpful behaviours, thoughts and feelings into the light of the conscious mind so that you can make your own decisions about whether they are helpful, true, important or aligned with your values.
Here is what you can expect if you master the art of becoming more mindful:
- Reducing stress and unnecessary pain – Recognising and letting go of unhelpful ways of thinking, feeling and acting that leave you stuck, resentful, overwhelmed and unhappy.
- Filtering out the time-wasting, trivial thoughts that our mind distracts us with leaving room for exploring ideas, being creative, solving problems and paying full attention to and savouring the things that really matter to us such as our relationships, our dreams or our health.
- Increased fulfillment and life satisfaction – becoming clearer about what you value and how to pursue the things that you have decided are important in your life – without getting sabotaged by procrastination!
- Being more ‘Zen’ – less reactive and more measured in the way you react to things.
- Experiencing more pleasure, joy, gratitude and awareness of simple everyday moments.
- Experiencing more connection and depth with those you love because you are truly present when you are with them.
- Experiencing more self-compassion and self-awareness – understanding, appreciating, accepting and connecting with yourself better.
How can I practice mindfulness?
Mindfulness can be practiced in many ways as long as you understand a few basic principles. It is often associated with meditation but it can also be done incidentally whenever and wherever you wish. Mindfulness meditation differs from other meditations in several key ways that make it particularly suitable for treating mental and emotional health issues. It is an active practice that requires full attention and, whilst it can be very relaxing, it is not a relaxation or transcendental exercise.
During a period of mindfulness you commit to the intention to be fully present and give yourself permission to let go of any thoughts, feelings or sensations that arise during that time. Remind yourself that nothing is so important that it cannot wait for a few minutes.
- Principle 1 – Choose an ‘anchor’ – the thing you will focus on during your mindfulness practice. Examples include your breath, your 5 senses, a candle flame or a mouthful of food.
- Principle 2 – Commit to a set period of time or number of breaths for your practice and stick to it. This could be anything upwards of one minute or 10 breaths.
- Principle 3 – Focus on your anchor and use it as the place to return your attention to whenever your mind distracts you with thoughts, sensations or feelings.
- Principle 4 – Whenever thoughts, sensations or feelings arise notice that it has happened and let go without judgment, question, analysis or criticism. It is normal to have this experience and every time you let go and return to the anchor you are exercising a muscle in emotional regulation and discernment.
- Principle 5 – Accept that you have a busy mind. The purpose of mindfulness practice is not to completely clear your mind but to come in to a new relationship with it. To become an observer of the comings and goings of your mind and make more discerning choices about what you allow to consume your attention.
Some examples of mindfulness practices:
- Mindfulness of the breath – close your eyes and using your breath as an anchor, focus on the experience of deep, slow breaths moving through your nose, down your throat and into your lungs. Notice that the air is warmer as it exits, notice your chest expanding and contracting and notice the rhythm of your breathing. With any thoughts, feelings or sensations that arise, observe that they are there and then gently let them go and return to the breath.
- Mindfulness of the senses – you may choose to close your eyes or leave them open for this exercise. Take a few relaxing breaths and then switch on your senses to your current environment. Notice the things that you can hear near by to you and further away, notice the temperature and scents on the air, any movement or pressure against your skin, the taste and warmth of your mouth. Move through your senses, using them as your anchor and gently observe and let go of any thoughts that arise during this time. You can use this senses exercise whilst moving or still.
- Mindful eating – you may choose to eat a meal or snack with mindful intention – your senses are again your anchor. With each mouthful use your senses to notice the effect it has on you – the saliva released in anticipation, the aroma of the food, the colours, the textures and flavours once it is in your mouth and the feeling of swallowing. Gently observe and let go of any thoughts that arise during this time and return to the sensation of eating.
- Incidental mindfulness – if you don’t have time to sit for 5 or more minutes in meditation you can also dip into mindfulness for brief periods and still benefit. This might be sitting at your desk at work and deliberately closing your eyes and paying mindful attention to a few breaths to re-ground and centre you. Or mindfully savouring a few sips of your morning coffee or paying attention to your senses as you walk from your car to the office. It all counts!
- Guided mindfulness meditation – if you find it hard to go it solo with a mindfulness practice there are many resources you can access where someone else guides you through. Search ‘mindfulness meditation’ in YouTube or Google and listen to a few until you find someone with a voice and style that you like. Similarly there are many free apps you can download that do the same. Some examples include ‘Smiling Mind’, ‘Simply Being’, ‘Calm’, ‘Headspace’ and ‘The Mindfulness App’.
Some final thoughts on mindfulness
I consider mindfulness practice as more of a cornerstone preventative skill than an ‘in the moment’ fire extinguisher. That is not to say that a few minutes mindfulness meditation won’t sooth your mind when you are upset but I believe there are better practices for this purpose. And it is really hard to do when you are already distressed and your mind is racing! My aim is always to prevent people from having negative mental or emotional experiences and with practice and patience this is what mindfulness does. The effects are subtle but profound.
Once they have been practicing mindfulness for at least 5 minutes a day for a couple of weeks I generally find that my clients start coming to me excited about various epiphanies they have experienced as their awareness begins to expand. They start to see some of their own emotional patterns more easily and recognise them in others too. This enables them to get less caught up in those patterns and consequently become less reactive and more measured in their emotions and behaviours. This can be tremendously liberating and empowering. They are also often amused to realize just how much time they spend thinking about unimportant things that don’t really matter.
Mindfulness tends to give people what I call a ‘gap’ between experiencing an emotion and reacting to it. In that gap they are able to decide whether a thought or emotion is helpful or unhelpful and this informs how they respond. They don’t have to analyse, challenge or replace the thought – they just have to decide whether it serves them, and if not they let it go.
I won’t pretend that mindfulness exercises are easy but they do yield results quickly with a small amount of practice. Even better, once you have experienced what mindfulness in the moment feels like you never forget, and picking up the practice again becomes easier and easier. Be patient and kind with yourself if you find it hard and always cultivate an optimistic mindset that you can achieve this if you are willing to persist.
I so appreciate you taking the time to read my posts and I sincerely hope that you find them helpful. Please understand, however, that the information you find here is not a substitute for therapy and I cannot respond to individual requests for help in the comments. If you have serious concerns about your mental or emotional health please seek personal, professional help.