What exactly is mindfulness? Hint: it’s probably NOT what you think it is…
In 2010, when Mark and I were trying to come up with a title for our book ‘Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World’, we were met with blank incomprehension. Almost everyone would say: ‘Mindfulness? What the hell is that? You can’t call a book Mindfulness, nobody knows what it is… Nobody will read it.’
The world has moved on a little since then and mindfulness has become mainstream. But the concept often remains equally misunderstood. Many people feel that they haven’t quite grasped the idea because it seems so deceptively simple (this might be because the concept itself is easy to understand but the actual state of mind is difficult to cultivate for more than a few seconds at a time).
Mindfulness is, quite simply, full conscious awareness. It is paying full conscious attention to whatever thoughts, feelings and emotions are flowing through your mind, body and breath without judging or criticising them in any way. It is being fully aware of whatever is happening in the present moment without being trapped in the past or worrying about the future. It is living in the moment not for the moment.
Mindfulness can also be understood by what it is not. It is not a religion. Nor is it inherently mystical or spiritual. Prominent atheists, such as Sam Harris, are quite happy to meditate because of the clarity of mind it engenders. It is simply a tool for reconnecting with life, for embracing the ebb and flow of the world, and for coming to a greater understanding and acceptance of life’s eternal flux. Although people through the ages have used meditation for spiritual purposes, the main thrust of my work is to help people gain relief from anxiety, stress, depression, exhaustion and physical pain. It is said that ‘all life is suffering’ but I think that is far too bleak. All life can be suffering, if you allow it to be, but it certainly need not be this way. Life can be broadly happy and meaningful but only if you first get out of your own way and allow it to naturally unfold before your feet.
Another misconception is that mindfulness is in some way ‘opting out’ or detaching yourself from the world. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s actually about connecting and embracing life with all of its chaotic beauty, with all of your faults and failings. Many people also mistakenly believe that the aim of mindfulness is to intentionally clear the mind of thoughts. Rather, it is about understanding how the mind works. To see how it unwittingly ties itself in knots to create anxiety, stress, unhappiness and exhaustion. It teaches you to observe how your thoughts, feelings, and emotions rise and fall like waves on the sea. And in the calm spaces in between, lie moments of piercing insight.
Although meditation is extremely powerful, it is not the only way of becoming more mindful. Every aspect of life can be used to enhance mindfulness. Every one of your senses can become gateways to this delightful state of being. Eating and drinking, and even such simple things as walking through a park and smelling the flowers, can all become mindfulness practices. The work of Dr Ellen Langer at Harvard University is instructive. She has dedicated her life to finding novel ways of enhancing mindfulness and has rediscovered what many accomplished meditators have said for centuries: the key to mindfulness is to actively engage with life. There’s one little problem though: ‘mindlessness’ is all pervasive. We are all naturally mindless. If we are left with ourselves for more than a few moments, we can easily lapse into mindlessness. And we are generally not aware when we lapse into such a state. So we are unaware that we are unaware. We live on autopilot. Fortunately, there is a simple antidote: pay full conscious attention to whatever you are doing. Paying attention is the key to becoming present, to becoming grounded in the present moment, neither living in the past nor worrying about the future, but simply living life as it was meant to be lived. And when you once again begin paying attention, you kick-start profound changes that ripple across your whole life. You begin to see the world with all of the excitement, freshness, and joy that you did as a child. Anxiety, stress, unhappiness and exhaustion simply melt away in the face of such awareness.
Although meditation is profoundly important, it is but one way of cultivating mindfulness.
In many ways, the real meditation is your life.
Try these simple practices:
The next time you catch sight of your partner or a close friend, notice five new things about them. Pay attention to the way they move, their facial expressions, and the way their voice rises and falls, with its pitch and timbre. Can you sense their aroma? And their hair? Is it the same as you expected? Do they look tired or energised? Are they wearing their normal clothes? Pay attention to what they are wearing and the way the clothes follow or hide their contours. Try not to judge them in any way but instead accept them for who they are. The aim is not to judge but to observe. You find what you find. Do they become newly alive to you?
When eating or drinking, pay attention to all of its textures, flavours and aromas. Tease them apart and focus on each one in turn. Then pay attention to the flavour, aroma and texture of the food in its entirety. Tea and coffee contain many different flavours and chocolate has over 300. See if you can sense some of them, and then see how they combine to produce the overall flavour of ‘tea’, ‘coffee’ or ‘chocolate’.
The next time you are in a queue (or line) notice how your body reacts. Does it take on a mind of its own? Do your arms and legs want to move of their own accord? Are the impulses surprisingly powerful? Do you feel compelled to walk to the front? Is your mind swirling with annoyance or impatient thoughts? Pay attention to all of the different sensations in your body, the ground beneath your feet, the way your chest rises and falls with each breath. Close your eyes if that helps. After a while, begin to pay attention to the world around you. What can you see? Do the people around you look angry, stressed, unhappy or perhaps serene? Pay attention to their faces and to their body language. After a while, begin to broaden your awareness to encompass the whole scene. What can you see? Pay attention. What can you hear? Chattering, the sound of machinery or a keyboard being tapped? Pay attention to the whole soundscape. What can you smell? What can you feel? Can you gain a sense of the air flowing over your skin or hair? Breathe. Pay attention to whatever surrounds you.
You breathe 22,000 times every day. How many are you really aware of?
My latest book provides a concise guide to letting go and finding peace in a messy world, simply by taking the time to breathe. Known side effects: You will start to smile more. You will worry less. Life won’t bother you so much.
Dissolve anxiety, stress and unhappiness, enhance your mind and unleash your creativity with these simple exercises. And with each little moment of mindfulness, discover a happier, calmer you. It really is as easy as breathing…
‘This book is inspiring. Against a backdrop of beautiful art, Danny Penman’s gentle words explain clearly how breathing, known since ancient times as the foundation for living mindfully, can become, for any of us, a way to reclaim our lives.’ Mark Williams, Emeritus Professor of Clinical Psychology, University of Oxford.