Mindfulness as a ‘buzz word’ has increased in popularity over the past decade. Books, videos and apps have proliferated encouraging us to ‘become more mindful’. But what does that even mean?
Jon Kabat-Zinn is widely recognised as the Grandfather of secular mindfulness. He describes mindfulness as:
“Paying attention, in a particular kind of way: on purpose and non-judgementally”
Breaking this description into it’s three components:
- Paying Attention
- On Purpose
- Non Judgementally
Mindfulness is Paying Attention
Have you ever sat down with a packet of crisps and the next thing you know you are holding an empty packet and you’re not quite sure where all of the crisps have gone?
Have you ever pulled into your driveway and not been able to remember anything about your drive home from work?
That’s because you have slipped into ‘autopilot’ mode. You have stopped paying attention to what you are doing and let your brain operate on automatic pilot.
Sometimes operating on autopilot is a good thing.
When you are learning a new skill, like driving a car you are constantly having to think about what you are doing. You consciously walk through the steps of mirror, signal manoeuvre before you pull away from the kerb.
But after a while you no longer have to think about the different steps, they become a habit and you operate on autopilot.
But what happens when you go through your life operating on autopilot?
Research in the Harvard Gazette ‘A Wandering Mind Is Not A Happy Mind’ found that people spend a staggering 47% of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they are doing.
When you are not thinking about what you are doing then you run the risk of missing out on what is right in front of you.
You spend so much time rehashing things that have happened in the past or planning ahead to what you are going to do in the future that you miss the here and now.
And the only thing that really exists is the moment that we are in.
Mindfulness is Being On Purpose
Paying attention on purpose is key to mindfulness. We make the deliberate and conscious decision to direct our attention.
When we are on autopilot we get carried away with our thought processes but when we are mindful we consciously make the decision to not get carried away with our thoughts and to place our attention exactly where we choose.
Mindfulness is Being Non-Judgemental
Our inner critic is our greatest enemy. We wouldn’t dream of talking to our friends and family in the way that we often speak to ourselves. Yet we still do.
When we are being mindful we are not trying to supress or control our thoughts, we merely pay attention to our experience as they arise without judging or labelling them.
We become the interested observer of our own thoughts. And the more that we get into the practice of observing our thoughts, the less likely we are to get caught up in them and start to beat ourselves up because things are not turning out as we had hoped or planned.
A Real World Example
To give a real world example, meet Joe.
Joe is in a team meeting and puts forward a suggestion of how the team could work more effectively. Joe thinks his suggestion is awesome and would really help the team to work more efficiently and more effectively.
It quickly becomes clear to Joe that his colleagues and his team leader do not feel the same way about his suggestion. In fact, it is going down like a lead balloon.
Joe has been practicing mindfulness for a while and approaches the situation mindfully.
He really pays attention to what is going on in the room, taking notice of what people are saying and how they are reacting. He listens to the feedback that is being given rather than jumping to conclusions or making assumptions based on one particular comment.
Joe recognises and acknowledges that he feels disappointed that the team won’t be progressing with his idea. And while he doesn’t enjoy the uneasy feeling he has in the pit of his stomach because of that disappointment he understands and knows what he is experiencing.
When Joe gets home that evening he feels pleased with himself. He thinks back to the Joe of a year ago (before he discovered mindfulness) and can imagine how that Joe would have reacted in the same situation. He would have been angry at his team mates for not agreeing with him and would have taken their feedback personally and decided this was one more example of how he is just ‘not good enough’.
What a long way he has come!
What if we could all be a bit more like Joe?
What if we could spend more time focusing on the here and now rather than rehashing the past or planning for the future? What if we could accept ourselves for exactly what we are at this moment in time? What if we could treat ourselves and those around us with patience and compassion?
It sure sounds good to me!