You’ve see it on the front of magazines, you hear it on the TV & radio, even our doctors are talking about mindfulness these days. But what is it exactly, what are the different types of mindfulness and why the sudden fascination?
Mindfulness is certainly nothing new, nor is it ‘new age’. You don’t have to have any religious beliefs, nor do you need to gain any special skills to be able to experience its benefits.
At its core, mindfulness is really as simple as paying full attention to what is happening right now in the present moment. And anybody, in theory, is capable of that aren’t they?
But it isn’t as easy as it sounds. In fact, it’s incredibly rare.
Think about it. How often do you really fully experience something, intently paying attention as it unfolds? Be that driving to work, eating a sandwich, holding a conversation, walking in the park, anything. Or is your mind more often elsewhere? Ruminating about that thing your boss said this morning, or pondering something in the future like what you’re going to have for dinner, or bigger questions like what are you doing with your life?
And that is the crux of the issue.
Unchecked, our minds have a persistent habit of getting carried away with themselves. Overanalysing what has happened in the past, building unnecessary anxiety about what could happen in the future, making up all kinds of potential scenarios, mentally drafting emails, or getting overrun with banal details such as shopping lists, all the while diverting our attention away from what is really happening in front of our eyes in the here and now, interfering with our relationships, and distracting from our enjoyment of life as it actually takes place.
The more this goes on, the more overwhelmed, anxious or depressed we can become, and it’s all the construct of our own mind.
So mindfulness is the simple practice of bringing us back into the present moment to interrupt our minds from running riot and re-tune us in to the here and now.
Four Types of Mindfulness
1. Mindful focus on a task, or object
The most easy way to practice mindfulness right now, or in almost any scenario is to focus your attention fully on a task or object.
As Vietnamese monk and celebrated mindfulness ambassador Thich Nhat Hanh says:
“To my mind, the idea that doing dishes is unpleasant can occur only when you aren’t doing them.
“Once you are standing in front of the sink with your sleeves rolled up and your hands in the warm water, it is really quite pleasant.
“I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands. I know that if I hurry in order to eat dessert sooner, the time of washing dishes will be unpleasant and not worth living.
“That would be a pity, for each minute, each second of life is a miracle. The dishes themselves and that fact that I am here washing them are miracles!”
No dishes to wash you say? Alternatively, pick up a pebble, or a stick, or a pen. Hold it between your fingers and fully experience it. Feel every inch. Roll it around in your fingertips. Notice the different textures.
If you find yourself distracted, return to the object in hand and begin again.
Try the same thing with food, for example really savoring every segment of a satsuma. You’ll be blown away by how much more flavorsome and enjoyable than usual it is.
2. Mindfulness meditation
Probably the most talked about form of mindfulness at the moment. I recommend trying an app like Headspace to find guided mindful meditations to talk you through your first few practices.
In basic terms, mindfulness meditation is about focusing your attention on your breath, as you breathe in, and breathe out. Do this for 10 minutes or more at a time.
When distraction inevitably arises, try ‘Noting’. A technique where you label the distraction as ‘thinking’, or ‘feeling’ then return your attention to your breath.
Do not get stuck on any thought or emotion, nor should you try to repress or ignore it. Just observe it and let it pass.
3. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)
A modern form of therapy-based mindfulness proven to help people with chronic pain, hypertension, heart disease, anxiety and panic.
MBSR helps participants become aware of habitual reactions to situations, over time developing greater of freedom of choice and options for how to react and experience life.
4. Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT)
Combining breathing exercise, meditation and stretching with elements of cognitive therapy, MBCT has proven effective in supporting people who experience repeated depression.
It’s not about resisting thoughts or ‘blank’ thinking
A common misconception is that the whole purpose of mindfulness and meditation is to completely clear your mind and block out all thought. Sitting and thinking ‘nothing’ – empty thoughts.
This is not the case. Yes, the aim is to not be caught up and carried away in thought, and this is achieved by giving the mind something else to focus on. But not because thoughts are inherently bad and must be avoided.
Rather it’s to help us realise that we are not our thoughts — we are the observer of our thoughts. The fact that we can observe them shows that we are something higher and separate.
Thoughts are just constructs of our mind, no more real than Harry Potter or Batman. Both of which also started off as thoughts inside someone’s head and then developed into whole sprawling realities with back stories, beliefs, enemies and sagas.
You might think that’s a strange example. “Yes, but I know that Hogwarts and Gotham City are fictitious places – nobody is foolish enough to get caught up believing they are true.” Yet that is exactly what so many of us do with the thoughts and inventions of our own mind. We trust our own minds so implicitly that we buy into these invented storylines.
A major benefit of mindfulness is being able to take a step off of the rollercoaster ride that are our own thought patterns and create enough distance from our thoughts to gain some perspective.
We learn to observe our thoughts and build awareness of the story that is being weaved, and then we can choose to not be a participant in that story.
Over time we can learn to question why our mind is following and creating the same patterns and instead choose alternatives.
Mindfulness is taking proactive action to not live our lives on autopilot anymore, which allows us to take a more considered, measured, deliberate approach to life.
For more about mindfulness, read my 6 key benefits of mindfulness