Mindfulness has been in the media a lot recently as more research is completed that proves its benefits and efficacy. The theme of 2015’s Mental Health Awareness week is Mindfulness. What is mindfulness? Is something useful? I think it’s an essential skill, like reading, writing and using the internet. Here’s why:
Mindfulness isn’t something complicated and it is something all of us already do. I love the smell of coffee. I love the taste of strawberries. I enjoy the sense of accomplishment when I put the last full stop on something I have written. I love walking in the rain without an umbrella. I sing along to my favourite songs. And who doesn’t enjoy great sex.
All of these things have one thing in common. Focus. Attention. The moment I just before I take the first sip of a cup of well-brewed coffee and the smell of roasted coffee beans fills the air, I am not thinking about anything else. Typing that last dot (or saying “full stop” when using speech recognition software) is a deliberate action. It is a little ritual that I savour and enjoy. Nothing else intrudes in that moment.
This is mindfulness. Being in the moment, distraction free, focused on whatever you are doing and how your body is responding to your environment. Most of us see moments of mindfulness as a luxury. I can’t spend my life lost in sensory or intellectual pleasure and these little moments have limited value. I don’t get better at anything by smelling coffee. I don’t accomplish anything and these are not items I would be able to knock of a daily to-do list.
The skill then is applying mindfulness to other things in different ways. It is noticing how what we do affects us and being able to make better decisions because of that information. We live in a world filled with distractions and sometimes, the best thing we can do is to focus on whatever we are doing in the present and tune out external distractions. I think mindfulness can be used in two ways – narrowing our attention or widening it.
Narrowing our attention
Mindfulness is bringing your full attention to bear on one thing. It is as simple as enjoying eating a strawberry by focusing on all the sensory information your body is generating and how it makes you feel.
It is also possible to bring that same level of focus to different tasks. Tasks that generate negative emotions, like fear, anxiety, sadness, hopelessness. I think mindfulness is about gaining some perspective. Living through an experience with your full attention on the process.
We naturally avoid unpleasant things or use distraction to get us through those moments we dislike, but remaining in the moment, noticing physical and emotional sensations as they occur provides vital information we can use to change the situation or if we cannot, to change our reaction to the situation.
I don’t think mindfulness ends at self observation. The real strength of a mindful approach to life is what is done with that information.
Widening our attention
There are many things that I do not notice. We look at screens, not at each other, we text whilst we watch TV or scroll through our Facebook feeds, we carry on multiple conversations at once and we do our best to multi-task, thinking it would make us more efficient.
Sometimes the best thing we can do is a little bit of nothing. I do this with my daughter every few hours. No matter where we are, we stop. We listen, we look and engage all of our senses.
We look all around us and we look at little details. We listen for all the sound we can hear and then listen to just one sound and exclude everything else. Sometimes we look at the world around us. Sometimes we look at each other’s faces. Sometimes we look at ourselves in a big mirror.
Sometimes we listen to birds. Sometimes we listen to traffic. Sometimes we listen to the sound of our breathing. We talk about what taste is in our mouths even if we aren’t eating anything. How the world smells with our mouths open and closed.
We think about how we feel, both physically and emotionally. Does it hurt anywhere? What kind of hurt? Are we warm? Are we cold? Are we comfortable? Are we happy? Do we feel wanted? Loved? Proud? Sad? Self-conscious? Judgmental?
It’s an excellent game to play with small children and with yourself. Sometimes it is useful to take a step back and observe as fully as possible how I am choosing to live my life and approach my daily tasks. Every time I do, I gain invaluable information that help me improve my life, my health and my happiness.
There are times to tune in and then there are times to tune out. The real skill is not learning how to tune in, but knowing when it’s beneficial and having the skill to do it on demand when you need to.
Mindfulness can be a useful strategy to improve productivity, reach personal goals, enrich relationships and manage health, both physical and mental health, better. Mindfulness is for everyone. It can take whatever form suits your personality and lifestyle.
If you want to read more about mindfulness Lifehacker has a great article here.