Mindfulness is EVERYWHERE these days. McMindfulness I have even heard it called by some. But what is mindfulness and what part might it have to play in leading a more meaningful life?
What is mindfulness?
At any given moment there are an almost infinite number of different things, often sensory, that we could choose to pay attention to in the world around us. It could be the smell of our food, the sounds going on in the distance, the feel of our clothes on our skin, the sensation of our breath. It could also be the way we are feeling emotionally inside our own bodies.
But more often than not our attention is caught up in the stream of thoughts that is running through our minds. Mindfulness is about learning to become aware of this stream of thoughts and then, rather than letting it continue to occupy our mind, choosing instead to pay non-judgmental attention to any of these stimuli.
Why is my mind always thinking?
Thoughts run through our minds constantly. Even if you aren’t really consciously aware of it, at some level you may be remembering a conversation from yesterday or thinking about a phone call you have to make tomorrow. It might be that these thoughts are in the form of a constantly churning mental ‘to-do’ list.
The demands of modern life stimulate in each of us an ongoing mild arousal of our nervous systems which the psychologist Rick Hanson has called ‘life on simmer’. To some extent this can be helpful and personally I often feel like I thrive on this arousal. I am always having thoughts and ideas which I want to carry out, and this keeps me energised and enthusiastic about life.
But it can become excessive and it is helpful for all of us to keep the level of arousal in check and to try to even turn it off sometimes.
Why do I tend to dwell on the more negative stuff?
Thoughts can be positive, negative and neutral. The unfortunate thing is that our minds are geared towards dwelling on the more negative stuff than the positive. At a mindfulness lecture I attended recently I heard the expression that “our minds are like teflon for positive experiences and like velcro for negative ones”. I have noticed this in my own thinking for some time now, and this way of expressing the idea sums it up perfectly.
“our minds are like teflon for positive experiences
and like velcro for negative ones”
An illustration of this is that experience of leaving a party when perhaps one person said something to you that bothered you. The chances are that it will be that one comment that you ruminate on afterwards, not the countless other more positive memories that you could reflect on.
There are good evolutionary reasons for this. Our minds are set up to be on the look out for threats, of any kind. Way back in our evolutionary past this function would have been protective as the threats were to our safety. It was in our interest that our mind was sharp to the threat of a lion approaching and devouring us.
In our modern world however the threats are very rarely to our safety. They are more likely to be of a social nature, for example the threat of not being liked or of not being included in a group. The problem is that our mind still treats these threats as though we are in mortal danger and sends our anxiety rocketing upwards.
Slow the thoughts…and feel the calmness
Even if you aren’t actively thinking about these things, the chances are that at some level you are aware of them and as a consequence you are feeling, even if only very slightly, a certain amount of stress or tension.
This is why when we deliberately focus on the present moment and resist the urge to ruminate on either our interpretation of things that have happened in the past or our ideas of what might happen in the future, we feel noticeably calmer.
You can do this right now. As you are reading this, focus your attention on the feeling of the soles of your feet in your socks or your shoes, or even on the floor if they are bare. Or you might choose to focus on your breath. You might choose to focus on the way your body moves as you breathe – the way your chest expands, albeit only a tiny amount, as you breathe in and out. Or you might choose to focus on the sound of your breathing and how it changes as you breathe in…and out. Or perhaps you might focus on the feeling of the air as it goes in and out of your nostrils and notice how it is cooler when going in and slightly warmer when coming out.
By choosing just one of these sensations to focus on, even for a minute or so, if we can give it all our attention you will notice a calm feeling as the stream of thoughts is slowed down and possibly, even momentarily, stopped.
How does being more mindful lead to a more meaningful life?
Psychologists have shown that being in the moment and appreciating positive sensory experiences, as mindfulness encourages us to do, is intrinsically enjoyable. The positive emotions that are elicited go on and feed into an overall sense of well-being.
This should come as no surprise really. For millennia, philosophers have emphasized the need to pay attention to the simple pleasures in life and have suggested that this is where true happiness can be found. Many of these things are completely free and surround us all the time – we just need to tune into them. So the advice in the expression to ‘Stop and smell the roses’ is one we should all heed.
Of course we can’t be completely mindful all the time, and nor would we want to. Reminiscing about pleasant memories with friends and thinking about things we are looking forward to in the future can bring great joy. And we still need to remember to pick the children up from school so we can’t spend our whole lives simply ‘being in the moment’!
But taking some time each day to be mindful of, and grateful for, whatever is happening at any precise moment can do immeasurable good for our mental wellbeing.
So make a promise to yourself to take a few minutes to be mindful, whether it’s of the taste of your next meal, of the feeling of the wind in your hair the next time you go outside, or simply of what it feels like to be alive inside your body…..today!