The Ultimate Guide to MindfulnessFeb 21, 2022
What is Mindfulness and Why Does it Matter?
What Mindfulness is Not…
Before we explore what mindfulness is, let’s look at what mindfulness is not…
1. It isn’t about relaxing.
Though it is possible for you to feel relaxed during or after practicing mindfulness, the purpose of mindfulness is always only to practice mindfulness, not to achieve specific results.
2. It isn’t a fix.
Mindfulness can reduce stress and anxiety, reduce chronic pain, and can improve mental health, but it doesn’t fix them - rather it changes the way you relate to them which can reduce the impact of their symptoms - through curiosity and acceptance.
3. It isn't an end goal.
Mindfulness is a way of life, it is a way of being, not something you do, something you check off your to-do list or achieve. It is a way of relating to all aspects of your life.
4. It isn't about emptying your mind. Or controlling your thoughts
Rather noticing with acceptance and compassion the thoughts in your mind.
5. It isn’t difficult or easy.
It is focusing your attention on the present moment, we can all do it, and therefore it isn’t difficult, though life is complicated, there are often many things drawing our attention and so it also isn’t easy.
6. It isn’t a fad,
Though it sure is popular! What makes it so popular is the benefits it brings, as well as the growing literature supporting the use of it.
What is Mindfulness? How does mindfulness work?
Jon Kabat Zinn, the founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction defines mindfulness as “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally” Here’s a video of the man himself explaining this definition What is Mindfulness?
There are both formal and informal mindfulness practices - formal - making the time to practice each day, informal - allowing it to spill into all aspects of your life. Mindfulness is the ability to know what is going on inside your mind at any given moment AND to choose how to respond to that information.
The key elements of mindfulness are attention to the present moment, with acceptance, reducing automaticity, without judgement, with goals in mind, with compassion, and without ego.
Are Mindfulness and Meditation the Same Thing?
No. Mindfulness and mediation are not the same thing, mindfulness uses meditation as a way of focusing your attention on the present moment, though mindfulness is more than this. Practicing mindfulness formally in this way, allows you to practice mindfulness informally in all areas of your life, for example when you focus your attention on the present moment, on your thoughts and feelings, and when you respond consciously - this isn’t meditation, this is living your life mindfully.
How Mindfulness Helps Stress.
As mentioned before, the purpose of practicing mindfulness is only to practice mindfulness. And so it is not about reducing stress. Having said that, it has been found to reduce stress, here’s how.
It changes the way we relate to the events that cause us stress - with acceptance, without judgement, with compassion, with awareness, and without habitual responses.
It is often the internal struggle we have with our thoughts about a situation that causes stress, rather than the situation itself, for example, this shouldn’t be happening (yet it is) or I don’t want to think or feel this. The principles of mindfulness allow us to reduce this struggle and therefore can reduce the symptoms of the struggle - the experience of stress.
A stressful response can be a habitual response and mindfulness allows us to break the link between the situation and your response, it allows you to notice the situation and allows you to choose how to respond.
Having an awareness of the situation, as well as an awareness of yourself in the situation increases your ability to regulate your emotions, to be better able to take different perspectives, to avoid jumping to the worst-case scenario.
How Mindfulness Helps Anxiety.
Mindfulness helps with anxiety in much the same way as above, anxiety is the symptom of worrying, often worrying about a consequence that hasn’t happened yet, and so by definition is not in the present moment - mindfulness practice allows you to notice the worry of what may happen in the future, and allows you to make a conscious decision to focus on an anchor in the present moment, such as to focus on your breathing.
This focus on the present moment, with acceptance, compassion, and without judgement can have the benefit of reducing the symptoms of anxiety.
Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, a psychiatrist at the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says that mindfulness meditation makes perfect sense for treating anxiety. “People with anxiety have a problem dealing with distracting thoughts that have too much power,” Practicing mindfulness allows you to “deal” with your distracting thoughts, in a way that is likely to take away their power. Even just by creating distance from your distracting thoughts by saying to yourself, ‘I’m noticing that I’m having the thought… I’m noticing the effect it is having on me’, may even be enough.
How Mindfulness Helps Your Mental Health.
Mindfulness allows us to see ourselves clearly in the present moment which can positively change the way we see ourselves and our lives.
It allows us to make conscious choices, for our actions to be aligned with our values, for us to live our lives in the way we choose, being the person we want to be. Living our lives on purpose, in line with who we are and where we want our lives to go - this brings meaning and purpose to our lives, which will allow us to be happy and fulfilled.
Bringing our awareness to the present moment can allow us to notice and therefore enjoy the world around us.
In noticing and being aware of our thoughts and feelings, we create space around them, a space in which we can choose to respond, for example, to take action or to distract ourselves.
Mindfulness is recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as a way to prevent depression in people who have had 3 or more bouts of depression in the past.
How Does Mindfulness Improve Resilience?
Resilient people are self-aware, they live with meaning, understand themselves, and have mental agility - these are all traits that can be linked with living mindfully.
When we face stressful or dangerous situations we need problem-solving skills, we need to be able to assess the different perspectives to allow us to make the best or safest decision, if you have been practicing mindfulness then in this situation you will be able to draw on your practice to take stock of the situation you are facing.
Life has ups and downs too, and resilience is about being able to traverse the highs and the lows of life, mindfulness can help with this. Mindfulness allows you, through acceptance and open awareness to avoid becoming too attached to the intense highs and the intense lows.
When we practice mindfulness we create a space between what is happening and our response, this space gives us the opportunity to make conscious choices, these conscious choices can be with aligned with our values and strengths, can be with acceptance of ourselves and others, and can be with self-compassion and compassion for others - all of which enhances wellbeing and therefore our resilience.
How Mindfulness Helps Parents.
If you’re anything like me as a parent you may have thoughts like “I should’ve dealt with that differently” or “I wish I’d have been calmer / more understanding / less frustrated…” we can’t get parenting right all of the time, we are only human - but mindfulness can help you to get it right ‘more’ of the time.
Here’s how, picture a moment where your little one has managed to really wind you up, maybe it’s even something irrational, imagine if, in that moment you could bring some awareness - notice what is happening, what you’re thinking and feeling, what you and your little one are doing, what your little one might be thinking, then bring acceptance to the situation, not judging yourself for feeling frustrated, not judging your child for their behaviour, but just accepting you and your child in the moment. Then imagine being able to pause, and choose how you would like to respond, you can choose to respond calmly, with compassion for yourself and your child, and distract them from their frustrating behaviour, rather than with a (possibly habitual) frustrated response.
It would feel better right? Imagine how it would feel if you could bring this mindfulness to more and more of your parenting moments, imagine the calm you and your little one/s would feel, imagine feeling more connected to them, imagine feeling more empowered in your parenting - that is what I have found mindfulness to do on my parenting journey, and you can too!
How Mindfulness Helps Leaders.
As a leader you are great at what you do, you have knowledge and experience. You have a great brain, you have ideas, values, and beliefs - you bring so much to your role!
And you want to be the best leader you can be right? Mindfulness can help you be that!
Here’s how - mindfulness gives you the opportunity to be who you want to be as a leader, so that your behaviours, actions, and responses are aligned with the type of leader you want to be.
Being able to press pause in a situation to assess the situation in all different ways, including being able to think about the kind of leader you would like to be and how that person would respond, allows you to choose your response, a response that represents the kind of leader you are, whilst drawing on your skills, values, and beliefs.
More than that, when we are in a stressful or challenging situation we will go into fight, flight or freeze mode, this is when our body goes into survival mode, deciding on the best course of action to survive. Mindfulness can draw you out of this automatic response, and bring your higher brain online, allowing you to focus on all elements of the situation, whilst drawing on your knowledge and experience, which in turn allows you to respond in the best way possible, thus allowing you to be the leader you want to be, rather than the leader you’re automatic responses define you as.
2 further benefits of mindfulness of your leadership identified by Dr Ellen Langar, a Harvard University Professor are improved competence and charisma both of which are important in establishing and maintaining trust in you as a leader.
A Summary of the Benefits of Mindfulness.
Where Mindfulness Came From.
Mindfulness has its roots in Buddhism and Hinduism, some argue that it also comes from other religions such as Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Either way Jon Kabat Zinn brought mindfulness into western society. When he did this, he merged the principles of mindfulness with current science and developed the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program which has formed the basis for much of the research into mindfulness as we now know it.
Terms to Know.
Acceptance - This is seeing the situation as it is, without trying to change or resist it. That does not mean you approve of it, or even that you would not like it to change, but that in the moment you don’t struggle with it.
Compassion - Kindness, caring, and willingness to help.
Self Compassion - according to Dr. Kristen Neff entails “being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating”.
Judgement - is the decision of your opinion on something, for example, whether it is good or bad, kind or unkind, helpful or unhelpful, it is the action of adding a label to the person or situation.
Automaticity - The ability to perform a task automatically, with none or very little conscious control and attention.
The Pros and Cons of Mindfulness.
I imagine by now I’ve exhausted the pros of mindfulness, as Ellen Langer suggests, mindfulness can help in all areas of your life, your parenting, your work, and your relationships!
So what are the cons? There are some cons, and they are worth noting.
For people who have experienced traumatic events, as part of their coping of the events, they may have blocked out traumatic memories, practicing mindfulness meditation, in particular, can bring some of these previously “blocked” memories into awareness which can be extremely distressing, and could lead to complications for this person.
The same is true for someone who has actively kept things out of their awareness, as they start to open their awareness as with mindfulness mediation they may experience a “flooding” of these unwanted thoughts and or emotions, which could also be extremely distressing for this person.
If you are unsure if you may experience negative effects of mindfulness practice, then you would be advised to seek advice from, your GP or other qualified professional.
Examples of Mindfulness.
When you are eating your next meal, bring your awareness to the process, how it feels to cut up the food, how the food tastes and feels in your mouth, the thoughts and feelings you experience whilst eating, and when you start to feel full.
In a comfortable position bring your attention to all of the different parts of your body, noticing everything you can notice about each part.
Next time you are having a conversation with a friend, bring your attention to fully listening, notice the words your friend uses, notice their body language, notice the thoughts you have, the way you feel, notice the pauses and tone of voice of your friend.
Where to Start With Mindfulness.
The key principles of mindfulness are;
- Awareness in the present moment.
- Responding with conscious choice, rather than automaticity.
- Without judgement.
- With acceptance.
- With your goals in mind.
- With compassion
- With awareness of who you are and who you want to be.
The easiest place to start with mindfulness is to just notice, notice the thoughts you are having, notice the way your body is feeling, notice things around you.
You don’t have to take time out to practice, you can practice bringing full awareness to your usual daily activities, try it for 2 minutes whilst you’re brushing your teeth. Whilst you're brushing your teeth, notice the position of your hand, the way you hold your brush, the way you are standing, how it feels inside your mouth, notice the thoughts that come to you, don’t hold on to them, just notice without judgement, with acceptance and compassion. You can also do the same when tying your shoelaces, when making a hot drink, or whilst travelling to work.
Tips and Reminders for Mindfulness.
According to Daniel Goleman, “the mind is wired to wander about 50% of the time”
The mere act of focusing, mind wandering, noticing, and refocusing is strengthening the connections in your mind, which in time allows you to bring your focus back to the present moment more easily. Giving you greater control of where your focus and attention are.
There is no purpose of practicing mindfulness, except practicing mindfulness - yes bringing your attention to your breath can be calming (especially if you were experiencing heightened emotions and your heart was racing and your breathing rate was increased), but that is not the intention of practicing mindfulness - the intention is always to build your mindfulness muscle, the benefits that may occur are a happy side effect, but if you are focusing on calming yourself down, you are judging how calm you are, and therefore you are not practicing mindfulness.
You can’t get it wrong, it is a practice - by noticing you’ve allowed your mind to wander and bringing it back to the present moment you are doing exactly what you should be doing, it doesn’t matter how long you can maintain the awareness, only that you are practicing maintaining your awareness.
Resources for Mindfulness.
Here is a quick 2-minute breathing exercise from Every Mind Matters.
You can use a mindfulness mediation such as the body scan to intentionally notice all of the parts of your body, not to change anything, but just to notice.
In this 5 minute video, you can hear Jon Kabat Zinn explain what mindfulness is
Dr Ellen Langar - suggests in her talk “Mindfulness over matter” that “if we increase our mindfulness, we increase our creativity, our effectiveness, our health and our overall well being - if you have 22 minutes, I would highly recommend watching this talk, it’s a great way to spend your time! Dr. Langar is a very entertaining speaker.
To conclude, mindfulness has many benefits and can enhance all areas of your life and is available to each and every one of us - we don’t need any resources to achieve it, just a desire to practice.
It isn’t easy, and it isn’t hard, it’s not about getting rid of thoughts, it’s not about changing your thoughts - merely to bring your non-judgemental, accepting, and compassionate awareness to the present moment.
There are many, many research studies that support the use of and the benefits of mindfulness, though there remains a caution for people who have experienced trauma, or who may have blocked out some of their memories or emotions.
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