What is mindfulness?
‘Mindfulness’ has been quite a buzz word for the past few years, and most people have a general understanding of its association with meditation and living in the moment, but what does this actually mean and how is It relevant to you?
Mindfulness is an awareness that comes from paying attention to the present moment, while keeping an open mind and not judging the experience.
There are two key points to explain here:
- Paying attention to the present moment
Mindfulness is about bringing awareness to the here and now, letting go of thinking about past or future situations, to notice all aspects of the present moment as it is happening.
In reality, this is not the way human minds operate! A worldwide study¹ by Harvard University of over 2000 people showed that for about half the time most people are not focussed on what they’re doing. When not attending to the immediate activity, their minds were thinking of other random things.
As adults, we can operate on automatic pilot going through the motions of the day barely noticing what we are doing. We eat our breakfast, brush our teeth, drive a car, walk, do household chores, while our minds are busy day dreaming, planning ahead, problem solving, and so on. Have you ever found yourself in conversation with someone, and suddenly you’ve lost track of what they said? Your mind was elsewhere, processing something else.
Scientists now have evidence that the brain is almost always active, even when we’re resting or relaxing. Brain scan studies show that even when the mind is not focussed on a particular task there is ongoing activity between certain areas of the brain, now called the “default mode network”². This supports the notion that the mind is constantly wandering, as we plan ahead, ruminate over problems, think about ourselves or other people, and replay all kinds of memories. Interestingly, these brain studies also show that when people meditate, focussing on the here and now, this default mode network is deactivated, which has been linked to a range of positive health benefits!³
So, what is wrong with a wandering mind?
First, a wandering mind can have a negative effect on your mood. In the Harvard University study mentioned earlier, when the researchers asked the same people to rate how happy they felt at each moment, they found that when people were focussed on what they were doing they reported feeling happier than when their minds were distracted by something else. That a wandering mind is not a happy mind, is a perception that Buddhist monks have held for over than 2000 years and is taught in Buddhist texts. Modern science now supports this notion, with clinical studies showing that people who learn to reduce mind wandering through mindfulness training, report improved mood and less symptoms of depression and anxiety.³
If you have a history of depression or anxiety, learning to manage a wandering mind with specific mindfulness training can reduce your risk of relapse 4.
If your mind has a tendency to wander into negative thoughts such “you could fail here” or “people might reject you”, you can be at risk of falling into downward spiral prompting a relapse of symptoms. Developing mindfulness skills and staying focussed on the here and now, can protect you from this vulnerability.
A third problem with a wandering mind is that it can increase general stress and fatigue. Humans are built with a negativity bias, meaning that we have natural sensitivity to negative experiences, and we are wired to look out for problems or potential danger in the world around us. While it may help us to survive, this negatively bias can influence the wandering mind without us even realising it. If we’re not focussed on a task, and the mind is free to wander, there’s a good chance it will turn to some kind of negative issue. Have you ever noticed how many problems need solving when you wake up at 3am and can’t get back to sleep?
The mind’s attraction to problems, and our constant efforts to solve them, can be very tiring leading to a degree of stress we may not even be aware of. Furthermore, it can lead to a dependence on mind numbing strategies, such as drinking too much alcohol, drug taking, or binging on TV, social media, computer games, etc. as people look for ways to zone out.
Learning to manage the wandering mind, through mindfulness training, can improve mood, prevent relapses of depression and anxiety, and reduce stress and fatigue.
2. Mindfulness is about keeping an open mind and not judging the experience
The second key aspect of mindfulness is about how we respond to what is happening in any given moment. Being ‘mindful’ also means being open minded, and non-judging; being willing to face the world as it is.
Facing any kind of difficulty in life, whether it’s a sleep problem, or any stressful experience, can generate feelings that we don’t like and don’t want. Normally we try to avoid uncomfortable situations and we seek out positive experiences, holding onto things that make us feel good.
It’s a human instinct to avoid facing unpleasant experiences, but this avoidance has all kinds of unintended consequences. For example, we may ignore a serious health problem, or not stand up to someone taking advantage over us, or we might give up on something really important to us. We can turn to more potent distraction techniques, like drinking alcohol, gambling, or binge eating, to escape stress or other uncomfortable feelings, which may seem harmless in the short term, but once they set in as habitual patterns, they can have a damaging effect on our health and well-being.
Of course, further problems arise when difficult situations can’t be avoided, or we can’t have the things the way we want, which happens all the time. This creates two levels of suffering. We have the initial negative experience of a difficult situation and then a second level of pain as we struggle to push it away. Or there’s the pain of missing out on what we want, and the extra suffering that comes from the longing for it.
What does acceptance and non-judging have to do with this?
Acceptance is not about resignation or giving in to what is happening, rather it’s an active process of assessing when a situation can be changed or when it is beyond our control. In order to make this assessment, we first need to face the difficult situation with a preparedness to feel the uncomfortable emotions that invariably come with a challenge. Rather than push negative feelings away or try to fix difficult situations, we can turn towards them and see that sometimes it is wiser to leave them as they are. By observing and staying with a difficult situation, we see that many problems, just like uncomfortable emotions, are always changing, and that in time they will pass.
By doing this regularly, we begin to learn how to trust in our capacity to hold difficult feelings in our awareness without having to do anything with them. We become stronger, less reactive, and make wiser decisions in our life.
Let’s take the example of managing insomnia to illustrate this point. If we can’t get to sleep, rather than try to force or will ourselves into sleep, which doesn’t work, an alternate and wiser approach would be to go along with the sleeplessness and practice resting. This “leaning into” the experience is a willingness to leave things are they are for a time, so as to learn a new set of skills and responses. We might not like the way things are, but we take some time to work with what is happening rather than work against it.
In contrast, non-acceptance, heads us into the cycle of insomnia: getting frustrated and anxious, tossing and turning, counting down the hours we have left to sleep, and more agitated thoughts about how much we need to sleep, all leading to further wakefulness.
Accepting and not judging the sleeplessness helps us to remain calm and rational, so we can make a wise a choice about how to respond. Responding may be to stay lying down to rest the body, recognising the restorative value of this. Or it might be to get up and spend the time awake doing something relaxing or restful.
In summary, a willingness to accept each situation for what it is, even if we don’t like it, means we’re less reactive and impulsive. We can make calmer and wiser choices about how to respond to stressors and challenges in our lives.
- Killingsworth MA, Gilbert DT. A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind. Science. 2010; 330 (6006): 932.
- Garrison, KA., Zeffiro, TA., Scheinost, D.,Constable. T., Brewer, J.A. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience September 2015, Volume 15, Issue 3, pp 712–720
- Keng, SK. Smoski. M., Robins, C. Effects of mindfulness on psychological health: A review of empirical studies Clinical Psychology Review. Vol 31, Issue 6, August 2011, pp 1041-1056
- Kuyken, W., Warren, F., Taylor, R., et al. Efficacy of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy in Prevention of Depressive Relapse: An Individual Patient Data Meta-analysis from Randomized Trials JAMA 2016;73(6):565-574.