Mindfulness has been around for over two and a half thousand years and can be found in both eastern and western cultures. The term “mindfulness” is a translation of “Sati”, which means awareness, attention and remembering. The present-day secular practice of mindfulness was developed in the 1990’s to help reduce stress. This approach has since been adapted to make a difference within education, health, the workplace, professional sport, the military and in prisons.
Mindfulness is something we’re all familiar with, but maybe did not have a name for before. Remember the last time you were completely involved in an activity, where you felt a sense of ease and your attention was simply absorbed on whatever you were doing. This could have been painting a picture, baking a loaf of bread, or gazing in awe at a wonderful sunset. All of these experiences have one thing in common – your attention is in the here-and-now and not drifting off in thought. For instance, you’re not mulling over whether you offended someone yesterday, or worrying about a report you have to produce. Your attention is connected with the flowing moment of experience, the activity, your senses and other people involved.
Natural selection has equipped us with an amazing brain that’s built to analyse, plan, problem-solve and create. The upside is that when we’re “thinking on purpose”, these abilities are immensely powerful. In the last 500 years we’ve developed the scientific method, split the atom, walked on the moon, unravelled DNA and built the Internet. The downside is that our brains are so powerful, they sometimes take over our attention with a type of thinking that’s not so deliberate. This is when our mind wanders. Recent research found that on average our attention drifts off in thought, away from the present activity, as much as 48% of the time. Typically our mind wanders into imagining the future, or trawling over past memories. When we “time-travel” like this, we disconnect from our experience of the present moment. The research also found that people reported being less happy when mind-wandering. The question is, apart from the present moment, when else can you actually experience happiness and the richness of being alive? It’s no surprise that this form of overthinking contributes to stress, anxiety and depression.
When we practise mindfulness, we develop the awareness to notice, the ability to remember what to do, the attention skills to unplug our automatic thinking, when it’s not useful, and come back to the present moment. All you need to do is bring your attention to your body and senses. Like the phrase “come to your senses”, your body and senses are only ever in the present. This awareness provides a greater clarity on what’s going on internally, as well as in the external world in any particular moment.
Without awareness, we tend to grasp pleasant feelings and avoid unpleasant ones. So for example, an email appears at work chasing up a deadline on a project you’re leading. As you read the email, you notice feelings of anxiety and stress and some negative thoughts bubbling up. Rather than push these unpleasant feelings away, you take a moment to acknowledge them. Maybe saying internally “Oh, there’s some anxiety, stress and some negative. That’s to be expected with the pressure of this deadline. The project’s okay and I don’t need to act out these feelings”. After acknowledging what’s going on, you take an aware breath and exhale slowly and respond effectively to the email.
Mindful awareness works with thoughts, emotions, physical sensations and the senses, as well as how they interact. Like many valuable things in life, practising mindfulness is not easy and takes persistent practice. One powerful benefit is that we learn to work more skilfully and harmoniously with whatever arises in the present moment. And it’s useful to know that there’s a growing body of evidence from psychology, neuroscience and from the settings above, that mindfulness is making a real difference to people’s health, happiness, success and wellbeing.
Find somewhere undisturbed and sit in a comfortable, dignified and upright posture, where you can remain alert and aware. Then close your eyes while this meditation plays to gently explore awareness of your body, breath and sound, while you practice noticing drifting off in thought and gently bringing your attention back to the present moment.
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