What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is an ancient practice that is very useful for our lives today. It’s actually a very simple concept: it means paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, with a nonjudgmental attitude.
Being mindful increases our awareness, our clarity, and our acceptance of the present moment. Mindfulness is just a practical way to notice the thoughts, physical sensations, sights, sounds, and smells that dance across our awareness in every moment. The actual skill of mindfulness is simple, but because it’s so different from how our minds normally behave, it takes a lot of practice.
Why is it so important for us to be able to notice our thoughts as they come into our mind? To notice how often we get pulled into habitual ways of thinking and reacting? It’s important because because we are not our thoughts. In fact reality is often quite different from what our thoughts tell us.
Life unfolds only in the present moment but so often we let the present moment slip away because we are worried about the future or we’re dwelling on the past. We’re a little bit like the parent who misses actually enjoying his child’s piano recital because he’s so busy videotaping it for the future.
Most of us spend a lot of time dwelling on painful memories of the past, fantasizing about things that we hope will happen in the future, and worrying about things that we dread will happen in the future. So most of us don’t realize that our attention is here, there, and everywhere except for the present moments of our actual lives. When you practice mindfulness you learn that you are not the same as your thoughts, and you get better and better at becoming an observer of your thoughts from moment to moment without judging them.
Mindfulness involves learning how to sit with your thoughts and feelings as they are, neither needing them to be this way or that way, neither grasping them in nor pushing them away, but letting them be just how they are. Cultivating a nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment confers many benefits: it reduces stress, boosts immune functioning, reduces chronic pain, lowers blood pressure and reduces the risk of heart disease. People who practice mindfulness are happier, more empathetic, more secure, have higher self-esteem and are more accepting of their own human vulnerabilities.
But here’s a bit of a paradox — even though learning and practicing mindfulness brings many benefits, you can’t really do it in order to gainthe benefits because that’s kind of the opposite of its whole approach! If you practice because you think it will give you some future gain, well, that type of future-oriented and not-now-oriented thinking is the very thing we’re trying to get away from.
My recommendation is to focus on the fact that mindfulness is a way of experiencing life more fully and a way of defusing yourself from your thoughts and feelings more effectively. That means you notice your thoughts and feelings as they float or whirl on through…. but you learn how not to get all tangled up in them.