What is mindfulness?

A new buzzword that seems to be in vogue at the moment is ‘mindfulness’. But what does it mean, and how can people achieve it? Moneybags journalist Jessica Anne Wood, looks at what ‘mindfulness’ is, and what benefits it can bring to your life.

Psychologist and life coach Claire Newton says that mindfulness is about ‘living in the now’. She explains: “Living in the present has a dramatic effect on our emotional well-being and our physical health. It’s long been known that the amount of mental stress we carry has a detrimental impact on our health. When we are living in the present, we are living in a state of acceptance. We are accepting life as it is now, not how we wish it could have been.

“When you’re living in acceptance, you realize everything is complete as it is. You can forgive yourself for the mistakes you’ve made, and you can have peace in your heart knowing that everything that should happen will happen.”

Newton adds: “Living in the now means living life with more joy and enthusiasm. When we are more present and conscious in our lives we do things with better quality and with greater enthusiasm. Better decisions are made which results in life being directed towards more positive ends.”

A definition of mindfulness

Patrick Madden, senior trainer at The Potential Project, explains: “a definition of mindfulness is relaxed, present-centred, non-conceptual, non-judgemental attention.”

He elaborates: “Mindfulness is a kind of attention. The meanings of ‘relaxed’ and ‘present-centred’ are quite obvious: it is attention that isn’t tense or uptight, and it is in the present moment, not the past or the future.

“‘Non-conceptual’ means that it’s not concerned with thoughts or stories about experience, just direct experience itself.

“’Non-judgemental’ means that it’s not assessing experience as being good or bad, for-me or against-me. If experience contains pain, mindfulness is aware of pain and that’s not a problem. If experience contains pleasure, mindfulness is aware of pleasure and that’s not something to get particularly excited about.”

In other words, mindfulness is “knowing what is happening while it is happening,” reveals Madden.

Dorrian Aiken, part time lecturer at the University of Stellenbosch Business School, reveals: “I think mindfulness is the conscious connection between your ability to stay alert to what you’re feeling and thinking in such a way that it guides your right action.”

The role of mindfulness

Being mindful underpins most things. “From a philosophical perspective, if we are not in touch with our experience, we are arguably not living our lives. From a functional perspective, our ability to do anything at all depends on our capacity to be present to our sense data. So mindfulness actually supports all our functioning,” says Madden.

The benefits of mindfulness

Madden says that from a scientific perspective, the intentional and regular cultivation of mindfulness has been shown to bring a range of benefits. It reduces stress levels, increases focus and concentration, increases empathy, enhances immune system response, regulates blood pressure, and generally improves mood and wellbeing.

Aiken provides the example “It’s the difference between my being provoked to anger by someone and wanting to punch them in the face, and being able to say, I know I want to do that, but I can intervene, I can observe myself and be the object of my own awareness and change my behaviour.”

According to Aiken, mindfulness can increase the quality of your experiences, as well as help you to overcome and avoid impulsive and spontaneous behaviour.

Being mindful helps to open your senses to what is happening in the world around you. “Mindfulness awakens you to the connection between your body and your feelings, your environment. It is probably the most powerful access we can have to heightened consciousness, to greater awareness and greater experience. It makes us more aware of others as well,” says Aiken.

Madden highlights: “Our capacity to be present and avoid involuntary distraction is challenged by many things (especially the internet and smartphones), so cultivating mindfulness at work can yield tremendous improvements in productivity, efficiency and stress management.”

He adds: “Besides the benefits to physical and mental health, mindfulness can help to deepen our capacity to relate with loved ones. Mindfulness puts us more directly in touch with the beauty of nature. It helps us ‘slow down’ and appreciate our life (but without the sense of losing our edge that the phrase ‘slowing down’ can carry).”

Achieving mindfulness

According to Madden, people can achieve mindfulness through informal and formal practice.

“Formal practice refers to regular mindfulness meditation, usually done sitting or lying down. Sessions can be as little as five or 10 minutes. The practice is simply to be present with your experience. The sensations of breathing are often used as an anchor to the present moment, since they’re non-conceptual and always present,” explains Madden.

He adds that it is beneficial to be taught by someone who has experience with mindfulness meditation, and to communicate with them regularly about your mindfulness practices. Informal practice relates to remembering to be mindful of every moment of every day.

Madden says: “Mindfulness is easy, but remembering to be mindful is often not easy, so it’s helpful to designate reminders. You can use stopping at a red traffic light, or brushing your teeth, or walking through a doorway as reminders to be mindful. Then you can take three mindful breaths whenever the reminder kicks in.”

Mindfulness starts with body awareness. “I think the easiest act is understanding yourself through your body, through your breathing, your physical sense of yourself through exercise, things like yoga and running,” says Aiken.

However, rather than mindlessly carry out an action, such as running, you need to focus on what you are doing at that moment. Your breathing, the feel of your feet hitting the ground, what is happening around you. “[These] practices open mindfulness. It’s opening your ability to focus on more and more.”

Mindfulness in practice

To start living a mindful life, Aiken recommends the following exercise, which will eventually become a daily practice that will make you more mindful.

“When you wake up in the morning, before you go to work, [think about] what kind of mood you are in. What are you aware of in your body? Did you wake up feeling relaxed, tight, [or] anxious? Put your mind into where you are right now, how you are feeling. Are you looking forward to the day? Notice what arises,” explains Aiken.

After thinking about how you are feeling, Aiken reveals that you should get out of bed and stretch, feeling your body and your muscles, as well as your breathing. You need to have a heightened consciousness around everything that you do in the morning.

“Again, notice how you are feeling, what are you aware of, what are you looking forward to? When you taste your coffee in the morning, do you really taste it? Do you focus on that pleasure? Instead of it just being a rushed thing along with a whole lot of other things that you can’t remember or feel because you are not staying mindful. So simple things like that, stay in the moment,” adds Aiken.

Aiken believes that if you start the day like that and you keep practicing just being conscious of opening your senses to what is around you, noticing your mood, noticing how things impact you, you can increase your ability to have that conscious awareness and increase the sense of peace for yourself.

For more information on mindfulness exercises and training, click here.