Mindfulness is everywhere at the moment, and everyone seems to be doing some form of mindfulness practice. There are mindfulness podcasts, mindfulness courses and even mindfulness colouring books – and in many ways it is beginning to feel like one of those words that has almost lost its meaning through over use. So, it’s probably worth starting this with a quick definition of what exactly it is.
Firstly, it is a central part of Buddhist practice – although this in no way restricts its use to that particular belief system. While you will definitely need to practice mindfulness in some form to be a Buddhist, you don’t necessarily need to be a Buddhist to practice mindfulness.
A route to deeper understanding
At its core, the basic idea of mindfulness is that it is about having a clear understanding of who we are and what we are doing. So, instead of being caught up in our thoughts, constantly pulled this way and that by our emotions and our worries about the past and the future, the idea is that we should focus only on what is really important, and truly tangible: the things that we are experiencing right now.
So, if we’re washing up, we should just wash up. If we’re walking, we should just walk. In this way, so the theory goes, we can truly start to see what motivates the things we do, how our actions and reactions are connected, and to begin to understand at a very deep level why we act the way we do. Once we have this kind of knowledge we are then able to more clearly understand not just ourselves, but also our relationships with other people and the wider world around us.
Does it really work?
But why bother? Is there anything really to be gained just by being a little more mindful of what we’re doing all the time? Surely being able to do one thing while thinking about another is a strength – one that certainly comes in handy from time to time, especially in the busy lives we lead today?
Maybe so, but in my experience I think that trying to be more mindful has increased the quality of my daily life in a number of ways.
Because of it, I certainly feel like I am more appreciative of – and more connected to – the world around me. Even simple and mundane tasks, like sharpening a pencil or preparing food have a richness of experience all of their own that it is easy to miss if you’re busy thinking about something else.
It has also made me much more aware of my own emotions and my reactions to other people or events. Because mindfulness practice tends to encourage a kind of gentle observation (usually without any kind of judgement of whether something is ‘good’ or ‘bad’), I have also become much better at seeing emotions like irritation or anger or anxiousness for what they are – a complex mix of sensations and mental processes that happen, grow more intense, and then soon pass. (The challenge, as always, is then learning how to build this kind of self-knowledge into everyday life, and using it to better inform the decisions we make!).
Mindfulness, then is a term that we hear a lot, and in many different contexts. Often the difference between the way people use it comes down to the various methods that are used to actually achieve this kind of presence of mind, whether it’s mindful meditation, mindful walking, or yes, even mindful colouring.
Find your own way
But personally, I think that mindfulness is one of those things that is sometimes easier to define by saying what it isn’t. For me, I certainly don’t think that mindfulness is sitting quietly on a meditation stool, telling yourself over and over again to watch your breath, or to listen to the sounds around you, or on any other focus of meditation such as a mantra.
Instead, I’ve found that in many ways, doing these things can actually feel like the very opposite of what it means to be mindful: in the very act of making a huge effort to not fill your head with thoughts, you find that you’re doing just that. Just as in the same way that you will think of nothing but strawberries if you are told that you can think of anything except strawberries, telling yourself to be mindful seems to me to be the last thing you should do.
Instead, I believe being truly mindful should not be about forcing yourself to focus, but rather about just losing yourself for a while in a perfect moment. It’s that time when you laugh so hard at something someone has said that you completely forget everything else. Or when you get over the top of a hill, completely exhausted, and see the land spread out in front of you.
At times like that, you take it all in, and see everything, laid out exactly as it is, if only briefly – and that kind of true mindfulness can be a truly exhilarating experience.
Graham Tomlinson blogs regularly on his website, and has designed the perfect platform for sharing mindfulness & self-improvement tips with as many people as possible.