Over the past few years, the idea of being mindful has gained a whole lot of steam. App developers, entrepreneurs, coaches, therapists, and self-help gurus have all been preaching about the benefits of mindfulness to the masses. I would know, as I happen to be one of them! What is mindfulness though? More often than not, I find that people are all too aware of the term, but possess very little understanding of what it means.
In one of his many seminars on mindfulness and meditation, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn
Professor of Medicine Emeritus and founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and
the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of
Massachusetts Medical School, in discussing mindfulness once said “We only have
moments in which to live. The past is memory and the future is just a concept. The only
time in which our lives are unfolding is now” (Kabat-Zinn, 2007). This way of thinking
about our existence functions as the very foundation of being mindful. The concept of
mindfulness is nothing new, but its application in Western psychology as a therapeutic
approach to a variety of issues is a relatively new and very promising idea.
According to the APA Dictionary of Psychology, the definition of mindfulness is: “full
awareness of one’s internal states and surroundings: the opposite of absent-mindedness”
(Vandenbos. 2007 p. 581).
Mindfulness consists of three vital elements: attention, awareness and present
orientation. To be mindful is to be attentive and aware of yourself, of others and of ones
surroundings while being focused on the here and now. By awareness, we mean the
capacity to perceive and be receptive of information that enters our perceptual field and
by attention we mean our ability to focus on detail and extrapolate meaningful and valid
information from it.
What goes on in our minds and how does mindfulness influence it? What we find
is that our mind is plagued with continuous commentary. Thoughts, feelings and
judgments that we develop to distract ourselves from the present moment. This
commentary is oftentimes never questioned or examined for its validity or content.
Mindfulness allows us to do precisely that. By being mindful, we begin to observe and
analyze these thoughts that would normally go unquestioned and we realize that this
commentary is a translation or even a departure from the truth, we realize that thoughts
are just thoughts. Once this realization has been accomplished, we are then able to release
these thoughts and silence our minds, redirecting our focus to that which is being
experienced here and now. We are now capable of observing life without getting caught
up in our own distractions.
The question now is why do we do this? Why do we self-handicap by creating all
this internal “noise”? When doing something that one would consider unpleasant, one
will oftentimes find oneself trying to escape the present experience altogether by
becoming future or past oriented, or by daydreaming until the experience is over. Our
perception of reality is what dictates our thoughts, feelings and behaviors more than
reality itself. So if an experience is unpleasant, it’s because we have deemed it so and
our mind simply reacts to the judgments we placed on the experience rather than
reacting to the experience itself. It is important to note that the label “unpleasant” is just
an example, the overall idea is that we label experiences worthy or unworthy of our
attention and we react to this judgment accordingly. An example of such unworthiness is
doing the dishes.
So if we find ourselves doing the dishes, something that is oftentimes deemed
boring and unpleasant, the associated commentary will run along the lines of statements
like “I wish I didn’t have to do the dishes…this is boring” What we have then done is
infuse negative/ false judgments into the experience, pushing our attention away from the
present. With mindfulness it’s not that we are supposed to infuse positive commentary,
but rather take things for what they are without distortion by personal feelings, prejudices,
or interpretations: "The warm water combines with the detergent and is washing away the
plate's grime”, “The sun is peering through the window and reflected by the dish's white
ceramics." In this example, you see that washing does not have to be judged "boring";
washing dishes is only a process of coordinating dishes with soap and water. Any activity
done mindfully is a form of meditation, but unlike meditation, being mindful does not
require sitting or focusing on one’s breath or prayer. It is done by bringing the mind to
focus on what is happening right here, right now, without prejudice.
When you think of meditation or mindfulness, you may start picturing people in exotic, picturesque locations, sitting still for long periods of time in unrealistic and highly uncomfortable positions. Don't let the silly Instagram-worthy images deter you from living a more mindful life. Next time you find yourself feeling really bummed out because of a problem you face or an errand you need to run, consider taking moment to consider what your thoughts are, and call them out without judgment. Consider examining your surroundings and actions, and describe them neutrally. Do this for a few minutes, and see how you feel. You just might be surprised by the results.