This article explains the fundamental practice of mindfulness. You’ll find this practice in every exercise we do to build emotional fitness because we need to be present with our emotions if we want to learn how to handle them better and handle more of the emotions we don’t like so we can do the things in life that matter to us.
Taking care of our mental health is all about learning to accept the stuff in our heads without judgment as we make decisions in the present that help us to be happy and healthy over the long term. Mindfulness is a practice that will help you accept the stuff in your head without judgment.
The amazing thing is when you accept your internal experiences – when you’re not judging a thought as bad, or a feeling as wrong, or uncertainty as something that needs resolving – you’ll eliminate much of what characterizes any struggle with mental health.
If you’re challenged by the stuff in your head, mindfulness will be a very useful practice to bring into your life. But like anything, it’s only useful if you practice it.
Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the professor, meditation teacher, and researcher who developed Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a therapeutic approach to applying mindfulness in clinical settings, gives a ‘working’ definition of mindfulness that I find very useful: ‘mindfulness is the awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose in the present moment – non-judgmentally.
I like that definition because it explains mindfulness in a way that makes it accessible at any time. You can pay attention on purpose wherever you are. It’s also an action we do non-judgmentally.
‘To understand how to accept the stuff in my head, helped me to see it all as waves in the ocean. I don’t choose when a thought can just stop, similarly to how I can’t choose when a wave crashes … But it always does crash, just in its own time. Sometimes the waves grow higher. Sometimes the waves are smaller. Also, sometimes waves take longer to crash, and sometimes they crash right away. What waves pop up and when they crash are not something under my control. If I were to jump into the ocean and try to stop every wave, I would achieve nothing. All that is achieved is wasted energy and frustration. Same goes with trying to control the stuff in my head.’ –Suzanne
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MINDLESSNESS IS A PRACTICE, TOO
To understand mindfulness better, it can help to explore its opposite: mindlessness. If we flip Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness, we could say that mindlessness means not paying attention in any particular way; unintentionally, lost in the past or the future, judging everything.
A morning full of practicing mindlessness might go something like this. You wake up and immediately begin checking messages on your phone while you lie in bed, flipping through news stories looking for something interesting until you feel the pressure of being late push you to get up.
Then you tweet on the toilet before going to watch the news and write emails while you talk to your partner over breakfast as you have conversations in your head with co-workers you need to meet later that day about a project that’s alarmingly behind schedule.
The imaginary conversations with your co-workers continue on your commute to work but turn into an argument because you know Susan from HR can’t take any criticism, and she’ll blame you for everything going wrong, even though it wasn’t your fault and you told people at the start of the project that this would happen. Why does nobody listen to you?!
You’re oblivious to the drive to your office, only snapping out of the argument in your head to honk at a guy in a sports car who cuts you up. The accident that nearly happened flashes through your head. You know exactly what type of idiot drives a car like that. When you rush into the office, late for your morning departmental meeting, your body still feels as if it’s out on the street, about to get in a fight with that other driver.
You can feel the tightness in your chest and the butterflies you always get when you confront people. That is mixed in with the buzz of anxiety in the back of your head, reminding you that you’ve got a report to finish that you promised to send to a client later today.
All of those feelings are only exacerbated by the complete and utter hopelessness that this meeting you’re now in could produce anything remotely useful. Your body might be in that meeting, smiling at what people are saying, but in your mind, you’re compiling a list of all the tasks you need to do to get that report finished.
As soon as the meeting is over, you rush to the kitchen to grab a coffee so you can try to wake up a bit, before collapsing at your desk. You feel stressed from the morning. The work you’ve got ahead of you for the day seems daunting. There’s so much data to collect and analyze, and you find that so tedious.
You flip through your social media accounts for a few minutes. You know you’ll feel the urge to check them later, so you want to get that out of the way. After half an hour you put on a podcast for some background noise, open up the report document, and get started.
At least, you want to get started, but it’s difficult to focus. You write a few sentences, and then you pull out your phone again without even noticing you’ve done so, checking your social media accounts again, then your email. There aren’t any new messages. You check them all again. Then there is a new message! You respond to it, then get back to the report. It’s agonizingly difficult to focus on it. You go online to look for jobs that pay well but won’t require any extra qualifications. Maybe you should become a software developer? You read an article online recently about how much developers get paid. Software start-up offices have Ping-Pong tables, and you would love to play ping-pong at work …
PRACTICE GIVES YOU SKILLS
That was mindlessness at work: your mind constantly jumping to a different place and time, judging everything, reacting to those judgments, relying on anxiety about the past and the future to fuel all of your actions, bouncing from one crisis to the next. If you look at everything in that example leading up to the moment you wanted to start work on that report, it’s not at all surprising that focusing on work was difficult.
The practice of mindlessness, like any practice, has natural consequences: your brain gets better at it and wants to do it even more. Brains like to do the things they do repeatedly. It’s easy. It saves energy. After hours of priming your mind to not be present, it’s normal for it to continue functioning that way. How many hours over how many days have you committed to the practice of mindlessness?
If we spend all morning practicing distraction, it’s not a sign of illness if we then discover we can’t do the things we want to do when we want to do them. If you have trouble paying attention and your days are in any way similar to what I’ve described above, you don’t have an attention deficit disorder. Nor can you blame the internet or smartphones for being distracting. You have a brain. And your brain is a very good learner. It’s doing exactly what you have trained it to do.
I spent years practicing mindlessness. I was very skilled at it. Being mindless became my default mode in every situation, every day. I came to rely on that practice as the only way I knew how to function. I thought that way of living and working was helping me, but it was a maladaptive skill. And as a result, I lost control of the monster I’d raised in my brain.
ALLOCATING BANDWIDTH FOR YOUR SEVEN SENSES
When we talk about extra senses, we’re usually talking about paranormal powers, but this isn’t about seeing ghosts or predicting the future. I assure you that this is grounded in a reality you’re experiencing. Learning how to meditate and practice mindfulness in my daily life has helped me to recognize that I have seven senses. I experience the sight, sound, touch, smell, taste, thought, and emotion.
You sense your thoughts and emotions. They are not you. You experience them in the same way you experience a shout in the street, the sting of a wasp, a summer sunset, the reek of decay, or the most delicious dessert melting on your tongue.
When we approach thoughts and emotions as senses, as experiences we can be aware of, it opens up the opportunity to move awareness around them. This is an especially useful skill to cultivate if you obsessively focus on thoughts spinning in your head or if you’re overwhelmed by emotions.
You can probably remember an occasion when you were reading intently and didn’t hear somebody call your name, or you were so engrossed in a movie that you forgot about the pain that kept you home from school that day. Or maybe you’ve noticed that staying constantly busy around other people seems to shut out all of the intrusive thoughts that bother you when you’re alone. That’s selective attention.
We can’t process all of the information coming to us from our senses at any given moment. Our awareness has a fixed amount of bandwidth for our senses. If we allocate all of the bandwidth to one or two senses, there’s no space for the others.
You can experiment with this right now. Notice what your butt is in contact with. Be aware of that physical contact with whatever you’re sitting or lying on right now. Or if you’re standing crammed on public transport right now, notice the part of your body touching the person next to you.
Awareness of that physical contact probably wasn’t there a moment ago. You were reading or listening. Your awareness was concentrated on sight and thought. But the physical contact was still there. You simply weren’t allocating any of your awareness bandwidth to that experience.
This ability to allocate bandwidth to your various senses is an ability you can develop and practice. It’s an ability you’ve been constantly practicing, every day, even if you weren’t aware of it.
When we’re struggling with the stuff in our head, we give all of that awareness bandwidth to those thoughts and emotions we want to avoid or control. That’s a practice. We get skilled at it. There’s only a tiny bit of bandwidth left over for processing the world around us, and we become increasingly less skilled at that.
So it becomes easier to ruminate about what we think our partner might have said than hearing what they did say. A memory from the past about an event that didn’t happen can create more anxiety than something that is happening.
The stuff in our heads becomes more real and meaningful than reality. Eventually, it becomes a filter through which we experience our other senses, to such an extent that we only experience the filter. We get stuck bludgeoning every experience with the same distorted judgments, smothering everything with anxiety or mania or depression. The practice of mindfulness will give you the skills to choose how you allocate awareness to your experiences.
DOING WHAT YOU’RE DOING, BEING WHERE YOU’RE BEING
Mindfulness isn’t a separate activity from our everyday lives. It’s a way of doing and being. You don’t need extra time in your life to practice mindfulness. You’ll find it gives you more time because you’ll be present for the life you’re living.
With mindlessness, you get stuck living a life that either won’t happen or you wish didn’t happen. When you’re caught up in the practice of mindlessness, death becomes very frightening because you’re acutely aware of moving closer and closer to the end of the life you could have had. Mindfulness is an opportunity to live.
To practice mindfulness, you simply keep your mind and body in the same place, doing what you’re doing, being where you’re being. If you’re eating, eat. If you’re listening, listen. And, if you’re giving, give. If you’re walking, walk. If you’re driving, drive. And, if you’re fucking, fuck. If you’re singing, sing. If you’re cooking, cook. And, if you’re washing, wash.
We can find incredible enjoyment in the present moment when we’re present to experience that enjoyment, doing whatever we’re doing.
BUT WON’T MINDFULNESS SLOW ME DOWN? I HAVE THINGS TO DO!
The practice of mindfulness might sound like it won’t fit into your hectic life. It might seem as if you’re being asked to give up the time you spend solving problems in your head, preparing for conversations, and coming up with all of your best ideas.
How can anybody accomplish anything if they’re not on their phone texting their partner while eating their lunch and writing an email to their boss at the same time as they’re working on next year’s budget spreadsheet and responding to notifications from their social media accounts? Life is designed for twelve hands and three heads, but we only have one brain, so that brain needs to do more. If you can’t send important emails sitting on your toilet at 2 a.m., you’ll get left behind.
The reality is that practicing mindfulness will help you get more done. When I struggled with my mental health, my brain was constantly spinning this hamster wheel of aggressively anxious thoughts, which only made me even more anxious and miserable. I was stressed all of the time by my own doing. I had to give up so much energy just to deal with how upset I was constantly making myself. Now that I don’t do that anymore, I have so much more energy to put into doing what I care about.
Confirmation bias makes it easy for us to remember the great idea we came up with while distracted from doing something else. We can easily forget all of the times we’ve made ourselves miserable and anxious and upset ruminating about something in the past or what might happen in the future while our bodies were left to run on autopilot in the present.
EXERCISE: Everyday Mindfulness
Mindfulness is something you can practice every day. You have the opportunity, at any moment, to be present. You can feel what you’re feeling and experience what you’re experiencing as you do what you’re doing. Practice within the context in which you live. I’ll share some different situations here in which you can try practicing mindfulness to explore it.
Whether you walk, use a wheelchair, run, bike, drive, fly or move by any other means, try practicing mindfulness while you do it.
Of all the activities I now do to maintain my mental health, mindful walking has been the most enjoyable discovery. I didn’t know it was possible to walk without constantly spinning the hamster wheel of thoughts in my head. Why did nobody tell me I didn’t have to spend every walk anxiously ruminating?
In the past, I intentionally approached walking as a time to obsess, to stay inside my head and shut out my other senses. I wouldn’t see or hear anything around me because I was too busy debating in my head with politicians I disagreed with or trying to explain to an ex why it was their fault we broke up or digging in my memories for evidence that would prove I hadn’t committed a crime or done something mean to a friend. When I wasn’t focused inwards, I’d let my brain run all over the world around me, like a deranged, untrained puppy, sniffing and judging and pissing on everything.
Moving through the world mindfully is about being present in your experience now. It’s about keeping that rambunctious puppy brain beside you, not running off to the past or the future. It’s about being aware of the world and the experience you’re having in it.
Notice how judgments pop into your head. Can you recognize those judgments but not chase after them? Try moving your awareness around your senses. Instead of allocating attention to thoughts or judgments, can you practice giving more bandwidth to awareness of sounds? Or what do you see? Or the movement of your body in the present moment?
There is incredible enjoyment to discover in moving through the world mindfully, whether you’re going out on a hot date, or to the most important business meeting of your life, or to the shop to buy loo roll.
Today, or sometime in the week ahead, try entering into a conversation to practice mindful listening. Be there with the person or people with whom you’re having the conversation.
When you notice yourself chasing after thoughts, starting to worry about how you look, or whether you’re being understood, or what you should say next so the other person thinks you’re smart or funny, or if there’s something in your teeth, or that the person you’re speaking to is mocking you, or whether there’s somebody more interesting you could be talking to, simply bring your awareness back to the present.
Listen. Listen to what they say without attaching judgments and extra baggage from your past to their words. Give understanding instead of trying to get it. Can you bring enjoyment to simply listening, instead of approaching each conversation like a danger to avoid or a problem to solve?
As you begin this practice, it might only be about noticing how much stuff you’re doing in your head. It might be very difficult to stop doing all of that stuff and simply listen. That’s OK. Be mindful of the difficulty. You don’t have to judge yourself for it. You’ve spent years practicing the opposite.
This one might be excruciatingly difficult. Try to see something without doing a million other things, outside or inside your head.
Go to a beautiful spot and see the beauty. No selfies. Notice when you get lost in thoughts. Bring your awareness back to what you see.
Try watching a TV show or a movie and only doing that. Not watching it while studying. Not watching it with your phone in one hand and a slice of pizza in the other. Or, not watching it while planning emails you’ll write as soon as it’s done. Can you watch it all the way through without skipping ahead or switching channels, or searching for something better? Can you practice not judging the people you’re watching?
This one might be my favorite: prepare a meal mindfully. You don’t need to put music on or listen to a podcast as you cook. Try to open up all of your senses to the meal you’re preparing. Enjoy the food. Recognize all of the work that went into getting it to you. Water and sunshine and the energy of so many people made that food possible. Enjoy that you’re preparing that food for yourself or others. Recognize the work you’re doing for yourself.
If you don’t know how to cook, that’s OK. I didn’t either. I had many compulsions in the kitchen, so cooking was not something I delved into when I struggled with my mental health. But as I took steps to get over mental illness, I saw that I needed to do a lot of work in the kitchen to help my brain. So I took cookery classes. The classes created opportunities to tackle many fears I had about harming myself or others, food poisoning, stoves, and being a terrible chef.
By learning how to handle and prepare food as I overcame those fears, cooking also became a way to practice mindfulness. Now, the act of cooking each day is a way I can nourish my body while also practicing the skills that help me take care of my mental health.
Conclusion: How to Succeed at Mindfulness?
- Do the things you are doing
- Keep doing the above-mentioned first two steps
Also Read: A GUIDED MEDITATION FOR HEALING