What is mindfulness...and why should I practice it?

Mindfulness has increased in popularity over the last few years … but what exactly does it mean .. and what are the benefits?

Mindfulness is primarily about the ability to be ‘fully present’ and this implies being aware of where we are and what we’re doing in the moment. In order to do that, we need to be able to focus on our sensory experiences, without interpretation, judgement or questioning.

Professor Mark Williams, former director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, has described mindfulness as knowing directly what is going on inside and outside ourselves, moment by moment. This involves reconnecting with our bodies and actively noticing and acknowledging the sights, smells, sounds, tastes and feel of whatever is happening right now. Mindfully eating a square of chocolate, for example, would include an awareness of the crinkly sound of the wrapper as you unwrap it, the smell as you breathe it in, the texture as it melts on your tongue, the sensation of the melting chocolate as you swallow it, the snap as you bite into it, the sweetness of the flavour. In effect, being mindful is allowing ourselves to experience the present moment clearly.

As Professor Williams comments,

"It's easy to stop noticing the world around us. It's also easy to lose touch with the way our bodies are feeling and to end up living 'in our heads' – caught up in our thoughts without stopping to notice how those thoughts are driving our emotions and behaviour”

How can Mindfulness help mental well-being?

Most of us agree that we take lots of things for granted in our lives. Think about the street that you live on, for example. Even in a town or city, the chances are that you regularly see trees and plants which you don’t even notice anymore. Being mindful – really taking time to ‘see’ your surroundings means, on a very basic level, you start to appreciate life more, to enjoy the world around us in all its glorious technicolour. Even the most mundane thing can become a thing of beauty when you really look.

More than this, mindfulness also allows us to become more aware of the stream of thoughts and feelings that we experience. Unhelpful thinking patterns can be very detrimental to our mental health – and often we don’t even notice that we are engaging in these. Consider for a moment the way that we often make negative assumptions about the world around us – adding a layer of fictitious perceptions, based on past experience or learned behaviour. These unhelpful patterns can lead us to become entangled in our own thoughts, over-thinking, ruminating and experiencing stresses and anxieties as a result. Often we believe that our perceptions and opinions represent reality – actually they are simply our mind playing tricks on us. Being mindful means that we can begin to really notice these patterns and to start to acknowledge and recognise when we are becoming entangled in ways of thinking which are not helpful or healthy for us. It allows us to stand back from our thoughts, to observe them and identify what is really going on.  We can reframe those unhelpful patterns as simply ‘mental events’, which we can choose to listen to or not. In essence, positive change begins with awareness and identification – it starts with the ability to notice and acknowledge.

So how do you become more mindful?

The first step is to really start to take notice – of thoughts, feelings, sensations and your environment. You can do that by paying more attention to the everyday – focus on the food that you eat, the tree outside your house, the sound of Autumn leaves as you walk through them.  Treating the everyday as a sensory experience, gives you a different perspective on life – suddenly the banal becomes a thing of beauty and discovery – it always was, you simply didn’t notice before!

At first, it can be useful to pick a specific time for your mindfulness practice – soon you will be doing it regularly and it will change the way that you experience the world all the time.

Remember that being mindful about your thoughts isn’t about chasing away any negativity, it is about sitting with them, however uncomfortable they may sometimes be. If you can do it, if you can reframe difficult thoughts as ‘mental events’, you will notice that they start to lose their power. Naming your thoughts can also be a helpful way of demystifying them – and a way of gaining back control over the way that you think, feel and behave.

Mindfulness takes practice – but the benefits are endless. What have you got to lose?

Good luck ????