What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is being conscious of what is taking place in your environment, your thought processes, feelings and sensations in your body, in the present moment, without judging yourself or the situation.
Mindfulness is not part of any religion; it does not require special clothes or equipment. You do not have to clear your mind, have an empty mind to be mindful, nor do you have to sit for hours a day humming ‘om.’
You can be mindful in different ways, and later in this article, I shall get you started by introducing some mindfulness exercises.
Much of the suffering you experience results from how your mind works. If you let your mind do as it pleases, it focuses more on negative events and overestimates danger,
Practising how to stand back from your own thought processes, look at them, not judge or overreact to them is a valuable skill known as mindfulness.
Choosing to come out of autopilot and watch what happens in your mind and learn to detach from it is being mindful of your thoughts. This skill, along with an understanding of how your mind and emotions work, can ease much of your suffering.
Table of contents
Why you suffer?
There are two major reasons for suffering
- When you ruminate over past events or imagine the future negatively, or
- When you are experiencing something painful right now.
Ruminating over the past or imagining worse case scenarios can make you suffer
A few days ago a neighbour died following an accident. Since then, I thought about deaths that affected me. I acutely feel the pain, remember what I was doing and how it affected me.
I practice mindfulness in my personal life, and when I catch these thoughts, I practice mindfulness; I observe my own thought processes and rather than getting caught up in the thought; I tell myself; I am having thought about a loved one and leave it at that.
This does not mean that I am dismissing thoughts about a loved one. Rather, it means that I have observed a thought as it came into my mind, noted and named it, and moved on. I can remember pleasant, loving things; I do not have to dedicate so much time to the event of death when I have a lifetime of pleasant memories that are much more rewarding and accurate of our time together to think about.
Next time you notice a dip in your mood, ask yourself what is going on with your thought processes. Observe them and tell yourself I have a thought about (whatever the content of your thoughts are).
Once you come out of autopilot and pay attention to your thoughts, you see that your mind bounces from one thought to another, with no effort or little control on your part. Your thoughts reflect whatever emotion you are experiencing, as in my example above, when I experienced sadness at the sudden death of a neighbour.
You also notice that your mind can take this further by getting lost in regrets, negative events, and worry.
Coming out of autopilot and paying attention to what is happening in your start of practising mindfulness. Mindfulness helps you stand back from your thoughts, stopping your random thoughts, fuelling more uncomfortable emotions.
Because of a human phenomenon known as the negativity bias, the sudden death of my neighbour caused me to dwell on death, which quickly brought to mind more personal painful memories of death.
The negativity bias is where we dwell more on negative things than positive ones.
If you police your thought processes, you notice that many of the thoughts that linger (and you did not invite into your mind) are negative or hurtful. If you don’t believe me, try this out.
You have just come out of an interview for your dream job and I say either;
You will have done great. You were so well prepared, and I really hope you get the news you want.
You have no chance of getting that job. You are way too stupid and a fool for even attending an interview; I bet they are laughing at you right now.
Which will have the biggest impact on you, and which will you remember and mull over later this evening? I am sure you would not spend hours analysing. She said I’ve done well. Rather, you could spend hours or weeks going over she said I was stupid and getting laughed at. What does she know? I hate her!
If you were mindful and my insulting comment popped into your mind uninvited, you could observe the thought and mentally note, I am having a thought about what Elaine said to me and bring your attention back to what you were doing.
You may experience a powerful pull to judge the comment or judge yourself or judge me. Mindfulness does not apply judgement. If you could practise not judging your thought processes, you will not have to keep re-experiencing the pain of the initial statement.
How mindfulness helps
If you can bring your attention to what is taking place now, you might discover that you are okay. Right, this very second, you are reading words that I have written. If you can expand your attention to your environment, are you outside or at home, is it hot or cold, what do you hear? If you can do this, you are mindful.
Bringing your attention to what is going on now takes you out of the troublesome thoughts in your head and eases your distress created by your mind wandering into the past or future.
Yes, but what if what is happening to me right now is not nice?
All of us are living through COVID-19; if you are unwell, bereaved, lost your job or experiencing some other personal loss, mindfulness will not change this reality, but developing a meditative practice can help you cope with your current experience by teaching you to self soothe, lower stress and be more compassionate towards yourself.
Research has shown a 20-minute introduction to mindfulness help participants to reduce their experience of pain and regulate negative emotions.1
How can it help?
If something unpleasant is happening in your life, mindfulness can help to ease the pain. It cannot make the unpleasant event go away, but it will help you cope in a way most helpful to you, rather than avoid what is happening, and help you move on when the time is right.
If something painful is occurring now, it is useful to note the following points;
your mind will want to keep focusing on the negative aspects, and
Your mind will want to avoid unpleasant emotions. We have a natural tendency to move toward pleasure and run from pain; for some people, this can lead to unhelpful coping strategies such as drinking too much to avoid dealing with what is happening.
You might also find that you tend to push away painful thoughts and feelings or use coping skills such as alcohol to avoid pain. Understanding how emotions work combined with a mindfulness practice can help you with this.
You can mindfully navigate your experience without trying to change what is happening or to push away unpleasant emotions, or mask them by using, for example, alcohol or avoidance.
If you are currently experiencing powerful, upsetting emotions, you must understand how emotions affect how you think and what you do. Suppose I return to my example of the accidental death of a neighbour that resulted in me focusing on bereavements that were more personal to me. The emotion I experienced was sadness. This powerful feeling of sadness could colour everything that I was doing. I might not want to go for that walk. As I was feeling sad, my thought processes would be more likely to relate to death or other things that fit with the feeling of sadness. I could cope with this by locking myself away, not wanting to do things I normally do or drink (although I am tee-total!)
This would all happen on autopilot as I got swallowed up by thoughts and feelings.
Using mindfulness, I can observe and note what is happening to me but telling myself I have a thought about bereavements. If I can carry out what I had planned to do, wish was to go for a walk, I can undertake my walk mindfully, which means pay attention to what is around me. Is it hot or cold, leaves falling off trees, as it is the beginning of November or how my dog is behaving? This is not ignoring bereavements, rather it is paying attention to what is real in my life this second, and more often than not, it is okay.
In doing this, I can self soothe the pain I previously felt. I did not dismiss it, did not change it, and can now soothe and calm the mind.
How to learn to label your thoughts.
In my own example, where I had been thinking about bereavements, I was labelling my thoughts by saying, ‘there is a thought about a loved one.’ In doing so, I was not getting caught up in thoughts that randomly popped into my mind, but I also was not ignoring or pushing them away.
When you notice a change in your mood, check where your thoughts are and observe and label them. For example, if you are worrying, mentally note ‘there is a worrying thought’ and bring your attention back to whatever you are doing.
This is hard and first, but you can try the following mindfulness exercise that should help.
How to focus on your breathing.
At the risk of sounding like a cliche, your breath is a wonderful tool, and you always have it with you when you need it. If I find it hard to get out of my thoughts, I spend a few minutes focusing on my breathing, as this not only refocuses my mind it also calms me down.
Take five minutes and just notice your breath.
Don’t change it; notice in, out, in, out. Your mind will wander (possibly back to your worries), and that’s okay; bring your mind back to in, out, in, out.
Many people find it difficult to meditate or use guided relaxation when they are anxious. Maybe you have tried it and decided that it is no good, does not work for you, or avoid it altogether.
Meditation makes me focus more on my body and makes me feel worse.
Meditation will make you more aware of your body; this is true, as you will focus your attention on your body.
Does it make you feel worse, or more aware of what you are feeling in your body?
Being aware of what you are feeling in your body may temporarily heighten what you are feeling, depending on how you are focusing your attention.
If you are trying to meditate and realise your heart beating fast, you may panic, causing your heart to beat faster.
You might worry, that you will feel worse, or maybe have a panic attack.
You may then avoid meditation altogether, believing that it makes you feel worse.
Does avoiding meditation make you feel worse or better in the long run?
Short term, you might feel better and stop focusing on your body. Long term, you are not helping yourself because:
- Avoiding uncomfortable situations and feelings is a coping mechanism that works great in the short term but hurts you in the long run.
- If you cope with anxiety by avoiding things, this will keep your anxiety going.
- You will not get the benefits of meditation, which will relax your mind and body.
How to meditate, even when anxious.
It will help you not to run from uncomfortable sensations or experiences, as your brain will quickly learn that you are safe, and therefore, not give you anxiety in situations when you do not need it.
Let go of judgemental thoughts. When you feel your body more anxious, try not to judge your thoughts (this is making me worse etc.) These judgements make you more anxious. Just notice what you are feeling; describe it to yourself.
Start slowly with only a few minutes and build up your practice.
Hedy Kober, Jason Buhle, Jochen Weber, Kevin N Ochsner, Tor D Wager. Let it be: Mindful-acceptance down-regulates pain and negative emotion. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 27 January 2020; DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsz104