What is Mindfulness?

I always struggle with definitions. We like crisp definitions, so that we can say something is or is not X, whatever X is. Life, however, is less black and white.

We all spend a lot of our time "mindless". We do things with limited or no awareness. In fact, one of our great skills is that ability to move something from conscious effort to unconscious ease. We all learnt to walk, and if we are fit and well walking is something we do without much thinking and awareness of all the muscles involved in moving us around. We learnt arithmetic, and do not have to think about the answer to the question "what is 2 plus 3?". Much of our life is run like this, and there is no problem with that.

However, habituation is something that can become negative. So many problems today arise from habits that we acquire that either become harmful or simply block out our enjoyment of life. We work to pay the bills, but sometimes work takes over and becomes an end in itself, and we cannot switch off until we are exhausted or ill. We worry naturally about a difficult situation, but worrying becomes a habit in itself and we start to worry about everything. 

Mindfulness for me is really about working with our habits, and choosing which to encourage and which to turn off. That begins with awareness. So, when something starts to present itself as a problem, turning towards it and examining it is the first stage of awareness. So, if I am spending a lot of time reading emails on my phone, I step back and notice what I am doing, how it makes me feel, what it is displacing that I could be doing instead. I may continue with the emails, or I might decide it is time to do something else, and even to rest from activity and just enjoy the view from the train window. 

From awareness comes understanding. Habits are not easy to change, and only by noticing them, noticing how they arise, and noticing what there effects are, can we build a motivation to change. So, that habit of checking my email every five minutes is something I do need to resolve and so I decide that I will only regularly check when I expect something or at certain times, say when I am working. 

Finally, deciding to change and do it in a positive way requires the right attitude. Understanding our nature as creatures of habit, rather than beating ourselves up when we keep doing something we can be more encouraging and compassionate to ourselves. So, when I find myself checking email in the supermarket for no reason, I can choose not to be annoyed with myself and bring some kindness and humour to the situation, and perhaps look up and notice how many others around me are slaves to their phones. Habits that we spent ages creating do not change overnight, but with patience and persistence they can. 

What about mindfulness practices like meditation? Well, some of the longer practices are really about watching the mind at work, understanding its habits, and addressing them in a gentle way. People often say that they cannot meditate because their mind is all over the place. Well, meditation is about recognising that and coming to terms with it. Often people think that meditation is about achieving some form of bliss, and indeed such experiences can arise. However, most of the time it is just watching the stream of thoughts and sensations and using simple techniques to prevent you getting swept away by them. For me, some of the most helpful meditations are very turbulent. So, if your mind is all over the place, meditation is probably going to be good for you, but do not expect a magic bullet to stop it. 

What about mindfulness in day to day life? That is what it is really about, helping to deal with the everyday problems, and sometimes the rarer but more challenging problems. There are simple exercises that help us to reconnect with ourselves. Checking in with our tense shoulders an whirling thoughts then taking a breath can really help ease day to day stress. It is as simple as that.

Mindfulness courses help develop day to day skills through formal and informal practices. 

So, for me, mindfulness is not a black or white thing. It is also more than shades of grey. When you really start to use it, life becomes more colourful. 

Now, about that email ....