What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness refers to the capacity to pay attention, with curiosity and kindness, to what we’re currently experiencing. It’s a relaxed, present-moment awareness that enables us to notice our thoughts and emotions, and what’s happening in the environment around us. Mindfulness is also a way of being – an approach to life more connected to the present, and less preoccupied by the past and future.
When we’re faced with stressful situations, troubling thoughts or difficult emotions, mindfulness helps us to notice and acknowledge what’s happening, see things in perspective and choose a way of responding that serves our wellbeing. Living mindfully also means being less distracted, and more able to notice, appreciate, and make the most of the richness and vitality of our lives in each moment.
Mindfulness and stress
In the course of our daily lives, we all have to deal with situations that cause us stress – and this is an inevitable part of being human. Sometimes we may be able to do something about our exposure to these events, but difficult things often happen that are beyond our control.
Sometimes we may respond well to pressure, using it as an opportunity to learn and grow. But at other times the way we react adds an additional layer of stress, and this hinders our ability to cope and thrive. Situations may trigger negative thoughts, strong emotions and coping behaviours that are understandable but ultimately unhelpful. These are often automatic, unconscious and habitual, following well-worn paths and patterns of thinking and behaviour.
Though we can’t always control what life throws at us, we can choose our response. In the midst of difficulty, mindfulness enables us come back to the present and notice our thoughts and emotional reactions with a friendly and accepting attitude. We can hold our experience in a calm, spacious awareness, and make conscious decisions about how best to respond to life’s challenges and opportunities.
Mindfulness is a skill that can be learned. In practical terms, mindfulness training involves building our capacity for sustained attention, and cultivating an open and accepting attitude. We do this through:
- Formal practice, which involves meditation and other exercises that train the mind to focus on the present moment. We use different aspects of our current experience as objects of our attention, such as the breath, body sensations, sounds, thoughts and emotions, and we become more aware of the interplay of our bodies, hearts and minds.
- Informal practice, which involves remembering to be more present with whatever we’re doing in the course of our daily lives, such as eating meals, housework, walking around town, chatting with family and friends, tasks at work etc. It also involves noticing our habitual ways of reacting in certain situations and choosing to do things differently – for the benefit of ourselves and the other people in our lives.
Formal and informal practice support each other and it’s important to do both. The training offered by Mindways includes many different ways of practising mindfulness both formally and informally, so you can find ways of combining them that work for you.
‘Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally to the unfolding of experience, moment to moment.’
Jon Kabat-Zinn, pioneer of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction training
‘Mindfulness is the willingness and capacity to be equally present with all events and experiences with discernment, curiosity and kindness.’
Christina Feldman, mindfulness teacher