WHAT IS MINDFULNESS?
“Mindfulness is the art of observing your physical, emotional and mental experiences with deliberate, open and curious attention.”
Susan L Smalley, PhD and Diana Winston from their book Fully Present, 2010
“We spend so much of our lives, it seems, re-living or pre-living our experience, and mindfulness is an invitation to come back out of that cinema of the mind where we’re caught up in thoughts and memories and plans, and actually to be here now and show up where our life is.”
Chris Cullen, in a Radio 4 discussion about Mindfulness on ‘Beyond Belief.’
Imagine you are standing in Trafalgar square waiting for a friend to come out of the National Gallery. While you are waiting you take a moment to consciously pause and rest your eyes. As you stand at the edge of the square you become aware of the voices around you, some of them loud and some of them far away. You notice traffic noise and the pigeons cooing. You become aware of tension in your legs– a tingling sensation behind your knees, and then a thought – ‘This must be from standing so long in front of the Van Goghs.’ The wind is cool against your face and you can feel your hair tickling your forehead. Your mind replays a funny moment in the queue when your friend managed to fling her sunglasses half way across the lobby. The image evaporates as you return to the body sensations in your face – a smile on your lips, the creases at the corners of your mouth. When you’re ready, you open your eyes.
This is a moment of mindfulness: a receptive, open, non-judgemental awareness of your present moment experience.
In every second, we are immersed in a rich pool of sensations – body sensations, sounds, emotions, thoughts. Most of the time, we aren’t aware of any of it. By working our awareness muscle over time we become more attuned to the content of our lives – our habits, perceptions, and difficult mind-states. Through our attention, we create a space, and it is this space which re-introduces ‘choice’ back into our lives. We stop engaging with our thoughts as if they are facts. We learn to turn toward our emotions, allowing them to arise and pass away without taking them personally. Our lives become our own again.
It’s difficult to open a newspaper or a magazine or listen to the radio without some doctor, scientist or teacher talking about mindfulness and its staggering benefits. Unlike other health fads, however, mindfulness has gained recognition in the last 20 years through a great and ever increasing body of scientific research.
Practiced for nearly 2600 years as a core skill in Buddhist practice, mindfulness is hardly new… But an understanding of the neuroscience – the malleability of the brain and the physical changes brought about by mindfulness meditation — is providing fresh insights into how we can support our wellbeing in the modern world.
Below is just a small sample of the known benefits.
- Strengthens the immune system. (Regular meditators see their doctors less often and spend fewer days in hospital.)
- Reduces the ruminative thinking that leads to stress, anxiety and depression.
- Improves reaction times, and mental and physical stamina.
- Fosters self-acceptance and self-compassion.
- Interrupts self-sabotaging patterns and habits.
- Significantly decreases stress.
- Helps with insomnia and sleep disturbances.
- Strengthens emotional resilience by helping people understand, tolerate, and deal with difficult emotions in healthy ways.
- Improves memory function
- Stimulates creativity.
- Increases concentration and focus.
- Improves and enhances interpersonal relationships.