What is mindfulness?
What if I said “you’ve been looking through the bars of a prison cell for most of your life”? You’d probably say I’m crazy right?
That was my initial response too. But over time I’ve started to see the merit in that assertion.
OK, let’s back up a bit.
The “bars” I’m referring to are the prejudices and biases that we are socialized with during our developing years – a perfectly normal part of human development.
Over time these biases influence our thoughts and perceptions. They ‘color’ our perception of events and people.
Let’s take a simple example. Growing up with Santa Claus as an iconic figure creates the perception that white bearded men are friendly.
The next time we see a man with a white beard walking down the street the mind is likely to perceive a friendly face. This re-enforces the bias.
Eventually, this becomes a thought pattern and which lead to mental habits or mental tendencies, which affect our daily life without us realizing it. This means we see things “as we are” rather than “as they are”.
This is where mindfulness comes in.
The Online Oxford dictionary defines mindfulness as “a mental state achieved by focusing one‘s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.”
I tend to use my breath as an anchor to step back and ‘watch’ my thoughts without identifying with them.
An analogy explaining mindfulness
You’re sitting at the beach watching the waves (your thoughts) on the ocean (your mind). You anchor your awareness to your breath and (with a soft focus) you watch the waves as they rise and fall in the expansive ocean.
Sooner or later your attention gets caught up in one of the waves and your focus narrows. You ‘lose sight’ of the expansive ocean and you’re focused on the one wave (thought). When you become aware of this fact, you gently bring your attention back to your breath, and resume watching the ocean (including the waves as they rise and fall).
Doing this consistently is mindfulness practice. It’s ‘meditation in action’. It makes you aware of your mental patterns so you can free yourself from them. This is what leads to lasting change.
If you want to learn more about mindfulness practice there are some excellent talks at www.zencast.org. Over 400 of them! I strongly recommend you check them out.
The power of mindfulness – it’s benefits and attributes
Mindfulness practice can be truly transformative over time if it’s cultivated over time in a consistent manner.
It can be very effective in overcoming procrastination. Even Novak Djokovic has been known to use mindfulness at the Wimbledon tennis championships.
You can use mindfulness to bring simplicity to your workflow and dramatically increase your productivity. Using this 8 step approach to productivity can help you focus less on being ‘busy’ and more on actually getting things done!
Here’s a list of the benefits of mindfulness
This not an exhaustive list but I think it’s a good start.
- You become less fearful. You welcome feelings and thoughts with a certain sense of curiosity rather than fear. You recognize that they are different sensations, which will eventually pass.
- You tend to move towards what you want rather than move away from what you don’t want. Your thoughts and actions are not so driven by fear. Your life becomes less about defending from your fears.
- Your mind is stable. Think stone in the water vs cork on a stream.
- You’re more creative. This is probably because of the sense of spaciousness in your thinking – you don’t think contracted thoughts
- You experience a heighted level of awareness after practicing mindfulness consistently for some time – usually a few months.
- Your capacity for concentration improves.
- You have an improved immune system (this has been found in several studies).
- You have the capacity for increased productivity.
- You live fully in the present moment – your mind doesn’t flit between the past and the future.
- You are accepting of what arises in the present moment – regardless of whether it’s good or bad.
- You don’t identify with your thoughts or feelings. Instead you just observe them. This means that you don’t get carried away with a particular thought. You watch it arise and then eventually subside without clinging to it or pushing it away.
- Your mind feels like less of a roller coaster.
- Your mental tendencies are more wholesome. You don’t tend to get caught up in the little things. Pettiness becomes a thing of the past.
- You have an increased capacity for kindness. Kindness to yourself and to others.
- You experience a form of relaxed alertness. Though this might sound like an oxymoron it is possible to be relaxed and alert at the same time. You’re attentive but without any anxiety.
- You see the world with more wisdom once you’ve practiced mindfulness for some time.
- You see things as they are – without adding your own biases. You tend to perceive things more objectively.
- You don’t cling to certain thoughts or mental states. Your attention ‘flows’ from one moment to the next without turbulence.
- You don’t react to people or events as much as you notice them. i.e. You register what’s happening without putting your own spin on it.
- Your breath is deep and slow – you tend to breathe from the stomach rather than being shallow and fast where you breathe from the chest.
- You don’t compare experiences – but rather just register them.
- You don’t get caught up in analysis. Rather you just ‘notice’ things as they occur.
- You become more aware of impermanence. All people and situations must eventually pass.
- You become aware of interdependence, which helps to create an expanded awareness. No person or situation has an inherent existence. Every person or event arises from a combination of factors. This view is very useful in not getting very caught up and clinging to one event or person.
- You experience equanimity (but not indifference). You are able to experience ‘good’ and ‘bad’ with equal fortitude.
- Your capacity for patience increases.
- You have an increased capacity for acceptance. You haven an increased capacity to accept people and situations rather than try to change them. Acceptance is not to be confused with apathy or indifference which are far more passive in nature.
- You have a greater sense of connection to all living beings and to nature.
- You experience more gratitude because you are no longer prone to expectations or mental projections.
- You have an increased capacity for compassion towards others and yourself.
- Your capacity for proactivity increases.
- You feel less agitated.
- You are more likely to pursue your ‘true calling’ rather than do what you imagine other’s expect of you.
- You don’t hanker for the approval of others.
So there you have it. There are clearly many benefits of pratising mindfulness. Sadly I can’t say that I’ve enjoyed all the benefits listed above – my practice has a long way to go.
But I can say that my mind is calmer than it once was and I’m a happier person overall.
To me mindfulness really is a no brainer (pun intended).
What are your experiences of mindfulness? What benefits have you experienced? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.