Mindfulness is simply being in the present moment and observing it. It's paying attention, non-judgementally, to your thoughts, sensations and emotions that are arising right now. Mindfulness has become mainstream today due to it's simple methodology and amazing effects, it is in-fact an adaptation from ancient Buddhist meditation practices such as Vipassana.
Why Do We Need Mindfulness?
We will walk up a hill preoccupied with getting to the top, all the while ignoring the beautiful view on the way.
Harvard University research has shown that people spend about 47 percent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing (Harvard Gazette). This means that all the while we're doing the things we do in life, our minds are very often elsewhere, not observing the present moment.
So what's the problem with this? Not being present in the moment causes life to go by unnoticed. We are busy replaying the past, worrying about something, daydreaming or obsessing about our future. Our minds are incredibly busy, non-stop in-fact. An enormous amount of energy is wasted on pointless thought; rehashing the past, worrying about this and that, planning ahead, and anticipating every little thing. Life will go on on whether we are obsessing with thought or not - so why not let it go.
We also seek continuous entertainment to remove us from our surroundings and the present moment; a movie, social media and so on. Society wants us to have busy minds so that we are constantly contributing to the system. Our well-being suffers greatly however, from a lifetime without mindfulness.
When you're talking to your child or partner, are you really present, or is your mind going over something in the future or from the past? Are you really listening to them or even in the room with them? When you go on vacation, do you stop to enjoy the very thing that you are doing, or are you thinking, for example, about the next thing to be done, where you are going next, maybe about something back home?
Nearly half the time, we exist in our minds, thought wrapped up in past, future or hypothetical dreams - and the present moment goes unnoticed. Society is very busy. We must get to work, make food, go shopping, collect the kids, organise an event, travel, create, read, interact with media, call a friend and so on - our minds always latching onto the next thing. But when the next thing arrives, we tend not to really observe it, our minds hunt for the next thing or the next. A classic example of this is autopilot behaviour while driving, where the present moment is almost invisible and we let our subconscious do all the work. Have you ever driven a whole journey and realised you can't remember any of it? You were lost deeply in thought and your subconscious mind was doing the driving.
It's very possible to allow your subconscious mind to take the wheel while remaining in the present however, for example, making a great speech or performing a song - the subconscious mind knows what to say or sing, but your conscious mind can be very much enjoying the moment.
By stopping the mind in its tracks and training it to observe the present moment, we really become aware of the present. We observe and accept it and make new memories to carry with us. Inner peace and happiness naturally follow, because we realise that the far horizons that we are constantly trying to reach to make us happy, are actually here right now.
If you think about it, you're likely always working to improve things. Working to earn money, cleaning or decorating your home, looking forward to an important event and so on. These are the things that will make us feel better about ourselves, achieving something. But once you actually get there, complete the tasks or achieve the objectives - the associated happiness is rather short lived. We don't even spend long enough in the moment to really experience what we have been working so hard to achieve. Instead, if you stop and observe the present moment, you'll see that life is happening right now and you are ignoring it.
How do you really feel right now? Where are you? What is it like? What do you observe?
While we are lost in thought, we're often torturing and beating ourselves up. For example, 'I need to save more money to buy that car. I haven't saved enough, how much do I need? I need to work harder or work more hours. I feel frustrated'. Instead, stop. Know that you are saving for a car, that's fine, and instead observe the present moment; what are you doing? Let's say; washing your existing car, it's a sunny day, it's beautiful. You're outside your home, your family are nearby, they are laughing together. You are hungry, you feel warm, you feel a breeze, the music from the stereo is awesome, you are calm.
So you see, which is better, beating yourself up about some future event, or enjoying the present moment that you worked so hard to get to? In this way, by living more 'in the now'; stress, anxiety and unhappiness are greatly reduced.
Mindfulness is best undertaken in a non-judgemental way, for if you observe the present moment while passing negative judgement on everything then your mind will take over and start analysing. You will not be properly observing and absorbing the present moment.
Go ahead and enjoy any emotions that arise from the present moment as these can be experienced without judgement and enrich the 'now'. For example, most of the time when you play with your child you're not really present with her, your mind is wandering on all the things you have to do. Instead stop and be there with your child. Observe her reactions, her joy, her own fascination with the present moment, and you'll see what you have been missing. Much more happiness, excitement and joy will arise as a result. The same is true for any other people in your life; truly be there with them in the moment when you can.
Children's minds don't constantly wander into the past and future, or worry and anticipate like adults do. They operate primarily in the present moment, especially younger children. When you go to the beach, you may be thinking of sun-cream, safety, drinks, the sand getting in your shoes, where to sit, not getting too dirty, what you will do later, where to eat and so on. Your child will go straight for the sand or the water and start playing. He or she will examine and interact with all of the stimulus from the surroundings, all in the present moment – and lots of joy and laughter will ensue.
Mindfulness helps us to see what we don't normally notice and to train our attention. Over time, through mindfulness practice, methods explained in a moment, your attention span will improve and you will absorb more information from the now. You'll be able to concentrate better on your work, loved ones, creative endeavours and indeed anything that you are doing.
It's necessary to practise over time and make mindfulness a conscious choice in the long term, in-fact for the rest of your life. This is because our minds are unruly and untrained due to 'being present in the moment' not being an idea that's instilled in us from a young age, we're simply not used to it. Furthermore, through more and more practice, mindfulness becomes automatic. When an event is occurring, no matter how nebulous, for example walking home with a friend, you start to automatically be present in the moment - absorbing the experience of being with them, not thinking ahead, or worrying about anything.
On top of all the known benefits just mentioned, research has shown that mindfulness practice can improve attention and sensory processing, reduce cortical thinning (that's thinning of the brain tissue which happens to all of us as we age), heighten empathy, enhance the immune system, reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol, improve ability to socialize and maintain relationships, reduce symptoms of ADHD and much more (Greg Flaxmanand, Lisa Flook, Ph.D.). So lets get practising!
How to Perform Mindfulness
So instead of your body doing one thing and your mind doing another, lets bring them together. You can perform this as a meditation for training and then carry the concepts through into your daily life.
1. Sit on the floor, a cushion, a chair or where ever you are comfortable. Keep a straight back, preferably without support to prevent you from falling asleep (a common problem for many people). Close your eyes, but you can keep them open if you prefer.
2. Listen to your breath. Pay attention to how it feels breathing in and breathing out. What does it sound like? Be aware that you are breathing out and be aware that you are breathing in.
3. When thoughts creep into your mind, which they will, gently and non-judgementally return to your breath. Do this again and again when thoughts appear and feel no emotion toward them, simply observe them arriving and going again. The amount of thought coming and going will lessen over time but for now we are simply calming the mind as much as we can.
4. Continue your steady breath and really focus on the present moment. Feel what 'now' is like. Accept the present moment non-judgementally.
Perform steps 1 to 4 for approximately five meditation sessions before including the following steps.
5. Start paying attention to sensations. What do you feel in every part of your body? Explore your body with your mind and observe what each part feels like. Realize that your body is a functioning energetic organism. What do you hear and smell?
6. Now pay attention to your emotions right now. Observe how you feel emotionally, non-judgementally. Do it objectively as if looking at yourself from a third-party point of view.
7. Lastly observe your thoughts. Again from an objective, bystander's point of view, observe your thoughts arriving and acknowledge them. By being objective you can see the thoughts come and go but you need not judge them or become emotional. They are like clouds floating by.
8. Return to focusing only on the breath when ready.
This mindfulness mediation practice provides you with a neutral onlooker's perspective of yourself. It also brings you totally into the present moment.
Transpose mindfulness onto your daily life. As already mentioned, while you're doing any task or at any time of the day simply remember to be present in the moment. Stop the ever searching, analytical mind in its tracks and simply be where you are right now. Suddenly, you'll recognise all that you've been missing and how much you can enjoy yourself right now.
There's no need to keep looking to far horizons to make you happy, happiness can be found in the present moment with all that you already have. Observe it because this moment will never come around again, and before you know it, you'll be looking back at your life wondering where all the present moments have gone. Don't be lost in thought for nearly fifty percent of the time, you may be missing out on a lot of the experience that this precious life has to offer. If you want to find inner peace and happiness – I cannot recommend mindfulness highly enough.