So what is mindfulness actually all about?

Photo: Elspeth Lewis

Good question! Here I hope to dispel some of the myths and answer some frequently asked questions.

How often have you left your keys in the fridge, or forgotten to pick up your kids, or put your dinner in the oven, neglecting to turn it on? We all do this. These situations arise when we are operating on autopilot. The point at which we notice, is when we start to become mindful again – so actually you already practise mindfulness!

According to Matthew Killingsworth, who carried out research at Harvard University, we spend 47% of our waking hours not being mindful. That’s almost half our lives spent ruminating, or not living in the present moment.

My favourite description of mindfulness, comes from my own teacher, Shamash Alidina, who explains it as:

Mindfulness means intentionally paying attention to your present-moment experience with mindful attitudes such as acceptance, curiosity, self-compassion and openness.

Shamash Alidina

Is mindfulness a religious practice?

This is a commonly-asked question.

Mindfulness does indeed have some roots in traditions such as Buddhism and Hinduism, going back several thousands of years. However the easiest way for me to explain it, is a secular human experience which we all have access to, whether we are religious, spiritual or neither. In fact, mindfulness is often used in sports and workplace settings.

This is one of my favourite quotes, which may help to sum it up for you:

Mindfulness does not belong to Christianity, Buddhism, or Taoism, just as the breath we inhale and exhale does not belong to any one of us.

Daniel Rechtschaffen

What are we trying to achieve?

Answer: Nothing!

With mindfulness we don’t set out to achieve goals. There is no right or wrong way to think or feel.

We aren’t even trying to feel relaxed. So if all you can notice during a mindfulness session, is that your mind is really busy, that’s still being mindful!

In our Western-style of thinking, we feel we need to prove that something is working and generating positive results for us. This has prompted lots of really fascinating neuroscientific research, which shows multiple life-enhancing benefits that we may attain through the practice of mindfulness.

However, we need to be careful that we don’t set out to reach these states. For example, we may think “I’m feeling a bit stressed, so I’m going to try mindfulness as that will help me to feel less overwhelmed”. Then if we don’t start to notice changes, we begin to judge ourselves and feel that we’re doing it wrong. Not noticing any difference, especially at first, is perfectly ok and really quite normal.

Do I need to sit still and meditate?

So many people feel that they couldn’t sit still in silence and be alone with their thoughts and breath for a few minutes.

As someone who came to mindfulness with a very busy, overthinking, “doing” type mind, I get this.

There are several types of mindful practices:

First, the more formal, meditative type. This tends to be anything from 5-45 minutes each day (or whenever possible). I find it best to build it into my daily routine and now practise for 20 minutes each morning before starting my day. Of course there needs to be some flexibility around this and some days it may not happen (this is the self-compassion part!).

The other form of mindfulness is observed in our daily activities and some people find this easier to start with – particularly when time-challenged. We can try eating mindfully, going for a mindful walk, painting, gardening, or even just taking time to observe our breath throughout the day – not trying to control or change anything, just simply observing in a non-judgemental way.

A friend recently told me that she had tried meditation at the end of a yoga class and would not be keen to try it again, as she had been in so much pain throughout! All she could focus on throughout the session, was how much discomfort she was in, and this put her off trying it again.

This is not my idea of mindfulness meditation either. Generally, we aren’t used to sitting on floor cushions in Western culture and we can find it quite uncomfortable at first. I sit in a normal kitchen/dining chair when I meditate, with my spine straight and supported.

Shamash Alidina, encourages us to find a comfortable posture for meditation. This is really key advice (and something for which I am grateful as I can’t actually get myself into lotus position now anyway!).

Am I trying to empty my mind or change my thoughts?

These are common misconceptions surrounding mindfulness.

Remember we aren’t “trying” to achieve anything, and certainly not to rid the mind of all thoughts.

Yes, during mindfulness meditation we are allowing ourselves to let go and do nothing other than observe the breath. Our minds will (with absolute certainty) wander and we can simply note what we are thinking or feeling, then just gently guide ourselves back to the breath.

Each time is different and some days our minds will seem to be very “noisy”. These thoughts are in fact with us throughout the day but it’s only when we sit still that we start to notice them. We can start to approach our thoughts with a more friendly curiosity, instead of trying to push away difficult thoughts and feelings, which can actually be more harmful in the long run.

Many people find that they form new relationships with their thoughts and feelings. We start to observe them differently. So we will still experience emotions of anxiety, hurt, anger and restlessness but we learn to respond to them more effectively.

What are the benefits?

By being mindful, we can experience higher levels of happiness and a reduction in stress, anxiety and anger.

We may find that our bodies are more relaxed, we have improved sleep and digestion, better immunity and even a reduction in chronic pain.

We may note better clarity of mind, with less “chatter”, enhanced memory and focus. This can aid our performance at work, in sport and fitness, and in home life.

Relationships may improve, as we accept that we cannot control how others behave but that we can control our reaction towards them and respond more effectively. In addition, some people report experiencing increased levels of compassion (towards both self and others) and emotional empathy.

It’s important to note that everyone’s individual experience will differ, as we all come from different starting points and encounter varying challenges and stressors in daily life.

In the words of Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Clinic and the Centre for Mindfulness in Medicine at University of Massachusetts Medical School, “We take care of the future best by taking care of the present now.”

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