Mindfulness is one of those labels that at first glance can trip us up. To some, it means fending off tension, to others it’s a vague something that fits in between meditation and slippers. Under the label lies a skill that can help to reduce stress and raise productivity. And like all skills, mindfulness can be taught, perfected and used with measurable results. So what is it exactly?
Mindfulness is the opposite of being on auto-pilot, where you’re not fully engaged with what you’re doing. By focusing only on the moment, you readily take in the things that your senses pick up, from a light breeze floating through the window to the radio coming from the sweary builders next door. We might also recognise thoughts and accept emotions – we are mindful of everything that touches us in this, and only, this moment.
As part of this process, being mindful means curbing thoughts of moments that are behind or ahead of us. Dwelling on the past or the future can take us out of the moment, effectively ignoring the reality of now. Skipping part of reality encourages anxiety and tension. By engaging with the reality of now, tensions in your mind become more settled.
Supported by neurological research
Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction techniques, believes mindfulness lights up parts of our brains that aren’t normally activated when we’re mindlessly running on autopilot. Is he right? In support of his claims, research has indeed suggested that mindfulness training can have a physical impact on the structure of the brain. It can potentially reduce reactions in the amygdala, a part of the brain associated with decisions. Mindfulness training can also increase connections between the amygdala and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain that helps to regulate emotions.
A study in 2019 suggested that mindfulness training in children promotes changes in the brain linked to a reduction in stress. The study went so far as to recommend that mindfulness training be integrated into the school curriculum for entire classes. It supported earlier studies that suggest stress can be reduced by mindfulness training through reduced responses in the amygdala.
It’s not about becoming a Jedi
Our Learnflix eLearning course on mindfulness will help you try it out for yourself. Before you start holding your thumbs to your forefingers, there’s no need to ‘clear your mind’ or chant anything. Feel free to do those things if you want to, there’s no judgement here – the point is they are not necessary for mindfulness. It’s easier than that.
Mindful meditation is not a zen-like state, there’s no magical, fixed destination to get to. You’re not looking to become a Jedi. It’s simply a moment or two of experiencing your surroundings. By suspending judgement of what you find there, you can freely explore all that this moment means to you. It takes a little practice, here’s how to begin:
1. Set aside a few minutes each day. It might be 10 minutes, it might be more – whatever works best for you. You don’t need any ‘meditation equipment’, you just need an open mind.
2. Keep still, relax. Listen to the moment, soak up all that your senses connect with. Listen to your thoughts, accept everything as simple elements of this moment in time.
3. Avoid judging. When judgements arise, make a mental note of them but don’t let them colour anything, let them roll in and roll out. They’re just passing through.
4. Circle back to where you started. Remember why you’re doing this, remember the point is to be open-minded to this moment. Remember to notice all it offers. Mindfulness is the practice of returning, again and again, to the present moment.
5. Be kind to yourself. Your mind will wander, it will ask questions, throw up doubts, wander here and there and back again, let it do so. Don’t judge yourself for it. Recognise when your mind has wandered off, and bring it gently back into focus.
By learning to see thoughts as being limited to now, we can manage them more easily. In mindfulness, thoughts are limited to this moment, they are not indelible facts, we don’t need to buy into their meaning. We’re not obliged to act impulsively and instantaneously. By retrieving a calm sense of control, we can use mindfulness to help boost the immune system and break bad habits. As author Sharon Salzberg puts it, mindfulness isn’t difficult, we just need to remember to do it.