Understanding Mindfulness: Why Be Mindful?

Understanding Mindfulness: Why Be Mindful?

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In this article, we’ll explore basic concepts and aspects of Mindfulness for understanding mindfulness and why be mindful, and to understand why it’s vital for us to be mindful.

How can you make the most of “now”? By learning to be mindful. In short, why be mindful? You may think that being mindful requires an ability to completely clear your mind and go off into an altered state in an attempt to get to a better place.  

Not so; mindfulness does not involve complex meditation routines.  Mindfulness is not about having an empty mind or suppressing thoughts and feelings.  Nor does it require years of practice, sitting in the lotus position in a flowing white robe on a beautiful beach.

Related: How to Practice Mindfulness?

I.      Why Be Mindful? – There are two ways of practicing mindfulness; the formal way and the informal way.

Formal mindfulness is probably better known as meditation; it involves following established practices; taking time out of your day to be still and silent, to focus on your breath, to be aware of sounds, senses, thoughts, and feelings.

Informal mindfulness requires no conventions.  It simply means bringing mindful awareness to everyday life; to daily activities such as eating, walking, driving, and housework.  Informal mindfulness is also part of your interactions with other people; at work, at home, and in your social life.

Your mind can think back and reflect on past events and experiences. Your mind can also think about the future; it can plan. Of course, your mind can wander to good things; you can remember good times and anticipate forthcoming events. But this ability to think back to the past and forward to the future is not always an unmitigated blessing.

Too often, life is racing by. There’s no time to experience what’s happening now because you’re busy thinking about what needs doing tomorrow, or you’re distracted by thoughts about what did or didn’t happen yesterday. 

And all the time your mind is chattering with commentary or judgment. Other times you can get stuck in the past, going back over and over events, or becoming paralyzed by worries about the future.

II.   Why Be Mindful? – How Mindful Are You?

How often do you live mindfully, meeting each moment of life as it presents itself, with full awareness, without judging it? If you’re like most people, often you are trying to do two or three things at once. And you probably do most things automatically, without noticing what you’re doing.

Perhaps, for example, you’ve decided to make yourself some tea; as you wait for the kettle to boil you either start doing something else –  reading the paper, washing up, making a   phone call –  or maybe you start thinking about a conversation you had yesterday or look in the fridge planning what to have for dinner tonight. Your mind is not on the tea –  it’s not on what’s happening right now.

It’s easy to get so caught up in your thoughts and feelings about the past or future that, without realizing it, you’ve disconnected from what is happening right now in front of you.

Ok, so missing the full tea experience is not that big a deal!   There are, of course, times when being able to think of more than two things at once allows you to get a lot done quickly and efficiently.

The real difficulties arise, however, when your mind gets lost in stressful thoughts about the past and the future:   replaying painful experiences from the past and imagining worst-case scenarios about the future.   At its most extreme, being stuck in the past leads to depression, and being trapped in the future leads to anxiety.

Or, it may be that what’s happening right now is painful. In those circumstances, you may live in denial; avoiding painful feelings and situations that you can’t accept or bear to live with.

All this rewinding back to the past and fast-forwarding to the future is exhausting and rarely productive.

Which of these situations are familiar to you?

  1. Often, I   experience an emotion –  guilt, jealousy, resentment –  but I’m not aware until sometime later. When I’m doing routine things such as supermarket shopping, waiting for a   bus, washing up, or making dinner I’m usually thinking of something else.
  2. I often find it difficult to motivate myself or summon up enough willpower to do what I told myself I would.
  3. I tend to walk quickly to get where I’m going and don’t notice my surroundings as I pass by.
  4. I’m not usually aware of how physically tense I am at times.
  5. I often feel that I’m just spinning from one situation to another. “Stop the world I want to get off” is a feeling I have.
  6. I’m often thinking about what else needs doing next week or what I failed to do yesterday.
  7. My mind is usually chattering with commentary or judgment about events or other people.
  8. I do jobs or tasks automatically, without being aware of what I’m doing.
  9. I sometimes find myself listening to someone with one ear and doing something else at the same time.
  10. And, I drive places on “automatic pilot” and just focus on getting there.
  11. I sometimes wish time away –  impatient for a   future event to occur.
  12. I sometimes find myself going back over past hurts.
  13. Also, I find it difficult to forgive.
  14. I often interrupt or am thinking about something else when someone is talking to me.
  15. Quite often, I feel bogged down with routine.
  16. My work is either boring or stressful.
  17. I rarely find a hobby, sport, or pastime that absorbs me and that I enjoy fully.
  18. I sometimes feel detached and disconnected from other people. It makes me unhappy.
  19. I often feel guilty. If I screw up I give myself a hard time.   I keep going back over what I should or shouldn’t have done.
  20. I lack confidence and self-esteem.

The more often you answer yes, the more areas of your life can benefit from mindfulness. Read on!

III. Understanding Mindfulness: Why Be Mindful?

There’s nothing mystical about mindfulness. To be mindful simply means to be aware and engage with what’s happening right now. It’s about being in the moment.

If you’ve ever become absorbed in a crossword puzzle or a board game, sung your heart out or “lost” yourself in a book or a film, a letter you were writing or work that you were doing   –   then you’ve experienced mindfulness; you’ve been totally in the moment.

Children are great role models for being in the moment. Watch a child as he plays; he’s not thinking about what happened yesterday, or what he’s going to do later today.  He’s simply absorbed in what he’s drawing, making, or pretending to be. When he’s upset, he yells and cries   –  nothing else matters but what has upset him.  He’ll cry about it, and then let it go; the offending situation is gone and forgotten.

Have you ever taken small children to the cinema? Everything is new and amazing. They stare at the bright lights in the foyer.   They stare at everyone sitting around them. Or, they move the seats up and down, gawp at the big screen and flinch when the music starts. They jump onto your lap when it gets scary, and they laugh out loud when it’s funny.  They live each moment.

Even cats show us how to live in the moment! When I look at our cat Norman, I’m sure he’s not thinking about the new brand of cat food he had for breakfast or worrying about what’s for dinner. Norman simply lives from moment to moment.

You can become mindful at any moment. You can do it right now. Stop everything. Focus on what’s happening.  What can you hear?  What can you smell? Look straight ahead; what do you see? What can you feel? Or, what can you taste?

Don’t give it any thought; you don’t need to like or dislike, approve or disapprove of what’s happening.  You simply need to be aware of it.

Even if nothing is there, just be aware of your breathing; the sensation of the air as it enters your nose or mouth and fills your lungs, and as it goes out again.

Does all this seem a   bit pointless?  How can this non-doing approach be of any value? Let me explain.

The ability to think; think back on past events, and think about the future – to plan –  is a feature that defines us as humans. As well as being capable of thinking about things that are happening, we can think about:

  1. things that did and didn’t happen
  2. and, things that have happened
  3. things that might happen
  4. things that may never happen at all.

But thinking is not always an unmitigated blessing. Too often, your thoughts can trap you; trap you in the past, and trap you in the future.

If you’re ruminating about events and going back over them again and again then you’re living in the past. You’re trapped there. Other times, you can be fretting about what lies ahead; anxious and worried: you’re trapped in the future. And all the time your mind is chattering with commentary or judgment.

What occurs as a result is that there’s no time to experience what’s happening right now because you’re distracted by what may happen tomorrow and next week, or maybe you’re too busy worrying about what you did or failed to do yesterday.

Even when nothing much is happening, something is happening.  Typically for most of us, it is thinking.   Thinking is happening.  Rather than simply being aware of what’s happening, we’re thinking about what is –  or is not –  happening.

The thinking seems to be our default setting.

If you’ve ever tried to meditate, the first thing you will notice is that your mind has a life of its own. It just goes on and on: thinking, musing, fantasizing, planning, anticipating, worrying, liking, disliking, remembering, forgetting, evaluating, reacting, and so on.

A recent study found that people spend half their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing, and this mind-wandering typically makes them unhappy.

The research, by psychologists Matthew A. Killingworth and Daniel T. Gilbert of Harvard University, used an iPhone Web app to gather 250,000 data points on peoples’ thoughts, feelings, and actions as they went about their lives.

“A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” Killingworth and Gilbert write. “The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”

They discovered that our minds are wandering about 46.9% of the time in any given activity, and the mind-wandering rate was at least 30% for all but one activity. The only activity that generally got people’s undivided attention was having sex. (Really? Not sure that I believe that bit!)

The study discovered that people’s feelings of happiness had much more to do with where their mind was than what they were doing. People consistently reported being happiest when their minds were actually on what they were doing.

In his book, the   Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle suggests that your mind is a superb instrument if used correctly.  Used incorrectly, however, it becomes destructive. “It is not so much that you use your mind wrongly –  you usually don’t use it at all. It uses you. This is the disease. You believe that you are your mind. This is the delusion. The instrument has taken   you over.”

Certainly, your mind can wander to good things. You can remember good times and anticipate upcoming events. Mind-wandering becomes a problem though when you are ruing the past or worrying about the future.

But, the past is gone, and the future isn’t here yet. What exists between past and future is the present moment.

IV.   Why Be Mindful? – So how can mindfulness help?

Mindfulness is a way to look after your mind. Your mind thinks all day and dreams at night. It’s always busy, and you expect it to just keep going. You cannot stop the mind from thinking, but if it’s not given rest, it won’t function well.

Mindfulness can give you a break from the endless chatter going on in your mind.  It’s a bit like the commentary that comes with a sports program on the TV. Two things are happening:  firstly, the game itself and secondly the endless commentary. Turn off the sound, and you can experience the game in a more direct way rather than through the mind of another. In your own life, your thoughts are doing the commentary, interpreting your experience: how hard it is, how great it is, how unfair, how beautiful, how wrong, how boring, and so on.

Too often, you can get swept away by a tidal wave of thoughts and feelings. This can be particularly powerful when you are faced with worries, pressures, and responsibilities and want things to be different.

Being mindful; paying attention to what is happening in the present moment is a welcome relief from these stressful and habitual thought patterns.

Mindfulness keeps you grounded and centered – less pushed by what’s going on around you. You are abler to stay focused and be calmly present amid both pleasant and unpleasant experiences.

It’s not easy to “think straight” when your mind is overwhelmed and confused; it’s hard to see through the mental clutter. Mindfulness helps you to make clear decisions more easily; to choose between one course of action and another.

However, this does not mean that you become rigid in your thinking and behavior. Quite the opposite!   Mindfulness allows you to be more flexible with your thinking. When you’re aware of how and what you are thinking, you will be able to disengage from established ways of responding and be open to new, more helpful ways.

You will find that when you are mindful you are less critical. Mindfulness frees you from judgment; it allows you to experience something without judging, assessing, or analyzing. You can observe experience without getting caught up in it. You understand that what’s happening is only difficult, bad, wrong, etc. if you choose to think of it as such.

Mindfulness helps you to be aware of when you’re thinking and self-talk have slipped into negative and unhelpful patterns; to know the type of thoughts and self-talk that fuel your emotions.

When you are mindful, you are more attuned to the links between your thoughts, feelings, and behavior.  You are less reactive and more responsive. What’s the difference?   Well, if you react, you are likely to resist or oppose what is happening.  If you respond, you behave in a way that is appropriate to the situation.

For example, if you feel you have behaved badly towards someone, you might react by attempting to justify your behavior or deny that you did anything wrong. When you are mindful, you are aware of how you feel and what those feelings are telling you. As a result, you are more likely to respond to those feelings of guilt by putting right what you did wrong.

Mindfulness can help you manage a range of difficult emotions. It can help you, for example, to reduce and manage anxiety and worry.  When you are focused on the present –  on what is happening right now –   it is not possible for worries and anxieties to come charging into your head.

Mindfulness is also a powerful way to prevent anger from getting out of control; you are more aware of the warning signs and able to manage the impulse to react immediately. You discover that everything slows down in a way that helps you to respond to difficult situations in a much calmer way.

The quality of your life improves – you can manage difficult situations more easily and get more out of the good things in life.

Mindfulness allows you to become absorbed in something and enjoy what you are experiencing. You are so focused on what’s happening right now, that there is no thought of the “next” moment; nothing can distract you.

You can let go and turn your attention to the things that make life worth living.

Mindfulness frees you from being preoccupied with your situation. Your mind opens to the world unfolding right before you –  the singing of the birds, the changing light, the movement of traffic; whatever it is in front of your eyes that is happening right now. It doesn’t matter how many times the birds have sung, the light has changed, or the traffic has passed by, mindfulness can help you to see things differently; you are open to new possibilities even in familiar situations.

Mindfulness turns a boring or routine activity into something new. It creates a new perspective; a   new way of looking at things and allows you to experience everything as if it’s for the first time.   It doesn’t matter how often you’ve done something; it will always be different; there will always be a different way to do something.

And so, because you are open to new experiences, mindfulness allows you to let go of anything that limits possibilities. It gives you confidence and courage. You develop a stronger self-belief; you are positive about your abilities and are abler to fulfill your good intentions and achieve your goals.

There’s no room for self-doubt, no room for unhelpful self-talk such as “I’ll never be able to do this”, or “I’m not good enough”. Mindfulness increases your awareness of these judgemental thoughts; how unhelpful they are, and how bad they make you feel.

You put aside the judgments and conclusions you came to as a result of past behavior and instead think about what you learned that could help you do things differently the next time.

Last but by no means least, mindfulness helps you to understand and connect with other people more effectively. How? In so many ways.   You are abler to engage with other people because you are focused on them; you are less distracted and abler to listen to what they’re saying and feeling. Also, you are more aware of other people’s needs and feelings, you can experience and understand another person’s situation from their perspective. And, you are more accepting of other people and the differences between you, and there is an increased understanding between you. It’s a win-win situation!

However, if being mindful simply means being aware and to engage with what’s happening right now, you might wonder how being mindful can be so helpful in such a wide range of situations. It’s because there are several aspects and principles of mindfulness.

V.      Why Be Mindful? – Aspects of mindfulness

1. Awareness

This involves being conscious and alert to thoughts, experiences, and events that are happening in the present moment.

2. Acknowledgment

This is the recognition of the existence of something. With mindfulness, this means recognizing thoughts, feelings, experiences, and events are occurring.

3. Acceptance

This is the state of not doing anything, just understanding that things are (or are not) happening.  Acceptance involves knowing that thoughts, feelings, sensations, beliefs, and actions, are just that; thoughts, feelings, sensations, and beliefs. It’s in the present moment that acceptance occurs.

4. Non-judgemental

This means not evaluating what is happening, just simply experiencing, or observing it.   Being non-judgemental requires that you do not give any meaning to your thoughts and feelings, other peoples’   actions, and events. You simply objectively look at things as opposed to seeing them as either “good” or “bad”.  It’s only when you attach thoughts to experiences and events that they have any meaning.

5. Letting go

This means not hanging on or getting attached to thoughts, feelings, ideas, and events. Recognizing they are part of the past.

6. Focus and engagement 

Mindfulness requires focus –  a clear and defined point of attention or activity. It means managing your attention so that it is focused and occupied with immediate experience. You focus your attention on one thing at a time.

7. Beginner’s mind

Rather than responding to events in the same old ways – ways from the past – a beginner’s mind can help you to see things in a new light. You put aside your beliefs and the conclusions you came to on previous occasions and open yourself up to new possibilities in familiar situations. You are aware of the subtle changes that make what’s happening now different from what happened in the past.   Noticing something new puts you in the here and now because you are more aware of what’s happening right now.

8. Patience and trust 

This aspect of mindfulness is the understanding that things develop in their own time.

VI.   Conclusion: Why Be Mindful?

It’s important to know that these aspects and qualities of mindfulness – acceptance, awareness, beginners’ mind, etc. –  are dynamic. That is, although they have distinctive characteristics, each aspect is linked to and interacts with other aspects. 

So, for example, if you approach a situation with a beginner’s mind, you are likely to be able to let go of thoughts, ideas, ways of doing things, etc. from the past.  

This then means that you can accept those past events are just that –  in the past. Now that you’ve learned how and why mindfulness can be beneficial in your life, it’s time to make a start on being mindful! The next chapter explains how to be more aware of how you currently use your mind and how your mind uses you.

You will see that just by being more aware of your thinking, you are being mindful.  And, there’s further good news; you can learn to think in a more open, flexible helpful way. Your mind is up for the challenge.

Also Read: The Ten Mindful Movements

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