What is Mindfulness?
Many of us live in a state of recurring fear, anxiety and often depression, whether we know it or not. Our culture swallows us in a constant war of thought, our minds battling with our sense of self worth, ebbing away at our ability to harbour happiness in our lives. It focuses our attention on the material, forces us to contemplate on the mistakes of the past and demands that our futures be full of wealth, success and perfection without telling us how to get there. And the result is as follows;
You’re in a city centre. You’re surrounded by thousands of people, dodging and weaving as they come towards you. In turn you do the same, dodging and weaving to avoid them, apologising when you unintentionally move to the left as they move to their right, forcing you both to stop. Embarrassment takes over, just as it did fifty yards back when the exact same thing happened. But you really don’t have time to be embarrassed. You have a thousand things to do. Maybe you’ve written a list, maybe you haven’t. Either way, you think you’re forgetting something. A gift to buy? An ingredient for tomorrow’s meal you’ve invited your family to. Narrowly avoiding a collision again, your thoughts move to that one family member you have trouble connecting with. You hope you won’t be left alone with them as the night goes on. You’ve embarrassed yourself in front of them before and you’re constantly aware of how successful they are when you’re near them. You hope no one will bring it up again… It’s getting so late, but you’ve only done half of what you set out to do. Between thoughts of self-resentment and worry you’re scrambling to remember everything. Your mind is everywhere at once. You don’t have time to stop and take a breather—you’d laugh the suggestion off. You’re stressed, tired and in a state of panic, your mind flitting from one problem to the next. If only you were more organised. You curse yourself, wishing you were home and that someone else could take care of everything…
We all do this. And we should all stop.
We develop this unhealthy habit as we mature into adulthood and for many of us, it only gets worse as our lives move to bigger things; jobs, driving, money, family. But this tendency to focus on a hundred things at once—and let’s be honest, they are almost always negative things—is harmful to our productivity, concentration and, in the long run, our success, our happiness and our health. Most of us know that doing this is not good for us, but we do it anyway. On the bus, in the shower, driving to work, in work, in class. Most of us do it and we’re unaware of it. Our minds can so easily slip into negative thoughts, and without us even realising it we’ve spent ten, twenty, thirty minutes focusing on how much we want this and that to be better, how dissatisfied we are with ourselves. And indeed, many of us don’t know how to stop ourselves from slipping into this harmful state of mind, even if we know it would be for the better. This is because we’re so used to thinking these toxic thoughts—as I mentioned, our culture drags us into the bottomless sink-hole without offering the knowledge so that we can pull ourselves back up.
This is where mindfulness could help us all. It is an ancient form of Buddhist meditation which has recently been imported into Western psychology and neurology studies. The practice has been attributed with reducing stress, combatting drug addictions, general satisfaction with life, success, improved health, heightened concentration, to name a few benefits. Top universities, such as Oxford, Cambridge, Stanford, MIT and Harvard—among many others—have conducted research into it, and some even have masters degrees focused in the subject. And more and more people are practising it in the West due to its potential benefits.
But what is it? How does it help? Mindfulness, as mentioned above, is a form of meditation—and a surprisingly straightforward one at that. To put it simply, it requires you to try and move your mind away from the types of things that were mentioned in the scenario given near the beginning of this article. This includes thoughts about the past and the future, whether they be negative or (surprisingly) positive. It forces you to focus your mind on the now, without becoming distracted by your own thoughts. There are many tutorial videos online which you can follow to get the precise techniques, so I won’t try to explain it in full. But one thing that is vital is allowing yourself to focus on your breathing. This is key. Through meditation, you learn how to concentrate on your surroundings, without allowing them to ensnare your attention, without your mind straying into long-winded ideas and narratives, as it often might. This part is challenging and takes a lot of practice, as it requires emotional regulation and a maximised focus on attention. But soon you will find you are able to concentrate for longer periods of time—like exercising a muscle.
Studies have shown that practising mindfulness has a positive effect on the learning ability of young people in academic environments, as well as adults in a professional context. Many businesses, organisations and corporations have been recently adopting mindfulness as part of their culture to help boost the productivity and satisfaction of their employees. This includes giants such as Apple, Google as well as athletes and world leaders.
Everyday people have experienced an increasing satisfaction with general life, through practising meditation at home. As in the case of Ed Halliwell, the author of Mindfulness, How to Live Well by Paying Attention, many have broken often lifelong cycles of anxiety and depression, only to begin building the foundations of contentment and well-being, simply by learning to become aware of what’s around them.
Many of us live in a constant state of stress, whether we know it or not. Our intrinsic biological traits are hard-wired for fear, stemming back to when survival was a luxury, and death walked behind us at every moment. It is easy to see why this may have, at one time, been beneficial. But our psychology hasn’t changed enough to adapt to our unnatural modern world, resulting in ever increasing mental health problems, particularly in the First World, where are lives are more hectic and full of movement than ever. Our instincts have come back to haunt haunt us. In Dr Lisa Rankin’s The Fear Cure, she explains how our lives are hardly ever in the same types of danger our species once endured. But our amygdala cannot tell the difference between actual mortal danger and the seemingly mundane, causing us to experience stress just as we always have.
Despite this inevitable biology we all share, there are those who have combated it and done it well, by using a simple, ancient form of meditation that merely asks us to be aware of the now. It may not be easy at first, but with practise comes skill. And that is precisely what attention is—a skill. A skill which should be taught in schools and beyond so that we can all know how to live meaningfully in a rapidly changing world.
1) Good DJ, Lyddy CJ; et al. (Jan 2016). “Contemplating Mindfulness at Work An Integrative Review”. Journal of Management.
2) A gradient of Childhood Self-control Predicts Health, Wealth and Public Safety, PNAS, Jan 24 2011.
3) National Comorbidity Survey
4) Mindfulness, How to Live Well by Paying Attention – Ed Halliwell
5) The Fear Cure – Dr Lisa Rankin
6) Hardwiring Happiness – Rick Hanson
7) Strauss C, Cavanagh K, Oliver A, Pettman D (Apr 2014).”Mindfulness-Based Interventions for People Diagnosed with a Current Episode of an Anxiety or Depressive Disorder: A Meta-Analysis of Randomised Controlled Trials”
Useful Tedx Talks
1) How Mindfulness Meditation Redefines Pain, Happiness and Satisfaction – Dr. Kasim Al-Mashat
2) Why aren’t We Teaching You Mindfulness – Annemarie Rossi
3) Integrate Mindfulness with the Power of Pause