You'd have to try pretty hard now not to have heard of mindfulness. It seems to be the new buzz word and there are a million apps dedicated to helping you live a more mindful life. Whether it's the Mindful Chef, Mindful Meditation or Mindful Exercise everyone seems to be talking about mindfulness in some form or another.
The reality is that mindfulness is actually quite misunderstood. As a therapist I often hear clients say "I've tried mindfulness and it didn't work for me". When I ask them what they understand by mindfulness the descriptions vary but often don't fit with the simplicity of what it actually is.
Take a look at this video featuring Professor Mark Williams (one of the developers of MBCT)
You see, mindfulness is actually about an unlearning, an excavation, a getting back to basics. It enables us to find out who we were before the world got it’s hands on us!
Mindfulness is in essence our natural state. It is not some complicated skill that we need to learn. It is inherently part of us. We have simply forgotten how to do it! Every child is mindful. They have a natural curiosity about the world as they experience if for the first time.
When we are mindful we become the observer of our thoughts, feelings and experiences. It is a way in which we can step back from being involved with every thought and just watch as they come and go. It is like we are experiencing what it feels like to be a human being for the first time. This is known as "Beginners Mind".
Mindfulness gives us perspective on our thoughts so we can find peace in the space around them. This enables us to perform better and think clearer ... but more of that in a bit!
YOU are not your mind
If you said I have a lot on my mind who's talking? YOU are. You are not your mind, you HAVE a mind. The mind is a wonderful tool. It is a bit like a computer. When we are born it is similar to a blank hard drive. Our experiences then fill that hard drive with information. The computer then learns to generate thoughts that it thinks are useful or helpful to us at the time. These thoughts are based on the only information that the computer has - what we have seen, heard or experienced in our life. Sometimes the thoughts that the mind generates are useful and helpful. Other times they are NOT! The mind is not an enemy it is more like a misguided friend that just gets it wrong sometimes! The trick is to learn to watch the mind and then CHOSE whether you follow the thoughts or not.
You cannot STOP your mind
Many people tell me that they tried mindfulness or meditation but they were unable to stop their thoughts. However, you cannot stop thoughts from coming into your mind. It is the mind's job to generate thoughts - that's what it does! Just as it is the heart's job to beat, it is the mind's job to generate thoughts. Mindfulness enables us to quieten the mind and to slow down the frequency of thoughts over time. As thoughts become less and less frequent we can enjoy the space of a quieter mind. However you cannot stop thoughts. In fact the harder you try not to think the more you will think.
If I said WHATEVER YOU DO.. DON'T think about a sky full of hot air balloons right now. What's the first image that comes into your head?
What resists persists. So if we try not to think about something we land up thinking about it more! However, by being mindful and watching our thoughts we stop engaging with them and they naturally quieten down. Engaging with thoughts is like feeding the fire. Once we step back and watch the fire quietens until the embers burn out.
Getting lost in thought
When was the last time you were lost in thought? Often we get caught up in negative daydreams about our life, our past or our future. These stories can be incredibly alluring, convincing (and of course only exist in our head!). However, the past has gone and the future is not here yet.
Sometimes we convince ourselves that if we think about a problem or situation enough we will find the answer. Whilst the mind is beneficial as a planning tool, sometimes we can follow thoughts until we land up in a downward spiral. We are no longer able to see our situation from any perspective at all. We allow the mind to run. Sometimes it feels as though we don't have a choice. Many people say to me "I just wish I could stop my mind!"
The reality is you cannot stop your mind but you can learn to watch it. Within this space the mind then begins to quieten down.
Why stay in the present moment?
The present moment is all we actually have. Everything else simply exists in our minds. When we are lost in thought we actually miss out on whatever is happening in life right NOW.
Right now in this moment there are a million beautiful things happening all around us. We may just not have noticed them. A child smiling, a flower opening for the first time, a leaf gently falling to the ground. Perhaps a bird is singing but we haven't even heard it. When we start watching and experiencing the present moment there is a sense of peace; a connectedness with the world around us.
But what if the present moment isn't a nice place to be?
Sometimes we would rather be anywhere with the present moment. When we sit with the present moment it may not always be a comfortable place to be. By being present we may become aware of our underlying feelings. Perhaps we are bored, in pain, sad, angry or lonely. However by being lost in thought and actually avoiding the present moment we often make ourselves feel much worse. We comfort eat, turn to alcohol, binge on chocolate, because we would rather do anything else than experience this moment.
However when we are mindful and we truly connect with this moment, whatever it holds, we actually find the peace and space around it. It is like opening the window to our mind. There may still be uncomfortable feelings but the fresh air can blow through. Slowly the feelings quieten down and we can feel calm.
Accepting what is
Sometimes the present moment is not OK. But it just IS.
A game of golf
There were two golfers. Both DESPERATELY wanted to win this tournament. The conditions on the day were perfect. The first hit the ball perfectly. The ball was heading straight for the hole when this wind came from absolutely nowhere and blew it into the rough. The first golfers was furious, it felt unfair, he did nothing to deserve this. He felt, upset, sad, angry and disappointed all at once. He was in such a state that he couldn't take another shot so he just threw down his golf clubs and walked off.
The second golfer again hit the ball perfectly. Again just as it was heading for the hole this freak wind came and blew it in the rough. However, the second golfer said:
"whether I like it or not, the ball is here. It's not OK but the ball just is where it is. There is NOTHING I can do right now to change where the ball has landed."
The second golfer wasn't giving up, he was accepting. Acceptance is actually the opposite of resignation. By accepting where the ball had landed he could release all the frustration, sadness, anger about where the ball landed. With a clear mind he went on to take a perfect shot to get out of the rough and win the game.
When we are mindful and accept the present moment, whatever it looks like, we become infinitely powerful. We are free from resistance to the things we can't change and then we can perform to our best.
Productivity and performance
When we become the observer of our thoughts we start to notice the space between them and around them. It is within this space that we can connect with our true selves. By simply "being" we can access our inner resources and discover insights and wisdom we didn't even know we had.
Empty your cup
This is a famous Zen story about a full mind:
One day an important man when to see a Zen master to ask him to teach him about enlightenment.
The Zen master smiled and said that they should discuss the matter over a cup of tea. When the tea was served the master poured his visitor a cup. He poured and he poured and the tea rose to the rim and began to spill over the table and finally onto the robes of the wealthy man.
Finally the visitor shouted, “Enough. You are spilling the tea all over. Can’t you see the cup is full?”
The master stopped pouring and smiled at his guest. “You are like this tea cup, so full that nothing more can be added. Come back to me when the cup is empty. Come back to me with an empty mind.”
Mindfulness can help us empty the cup
Only when we empty our cup can we fully access our inner resources and true potential. It is for this reason that many artists, musicians, sports professionals and business leaders use mindfulness. The space between and around our thoughts gives us perspective and wisdom so that we can then utilise our mind in a more efficient way.