What exactly is mindfulness and how do you practice it?

Recently, I keep seeing blog headlines along the lines of ‘mindfulness didn’t work for me’ or ‘mindfulness decreases motivation at work’ or ‘CBD oil will replace mindfulness as the new fad.’ Apart from the fact that the authors are clearly using mindfulness to get clicks, the articles illustrate how misunderstood mindfulness is. So I thought it would be a good idea to explain what exactly mindfulness is and how you practice it.

An introduction to mindfulness

Mindfulness is widely considered to be a Buddhist practice but it has evolved significantly over the past 20 or so years to become a science backed psychotherapeutic model with endless applications. You can read more about the history and diversity of mindfulness on wikipedia but I imagine that even if you don’t have an official mindfulness practice you are already being mindful in ways you never knew.

If you have ever…

  • identified that rather than being hungry you were actually just bored then you were being mindful.
  • felt completely absorbed in the moment with no thoughts of anything past or future, then you were also being mindful.
  • resisted the urge to call the person who cut you up in traffic the C word because you knew it would only cause you more stress, that was mindful. Well done you!

Mindfulness is being conscious of your thoughts, aware of the emotions that your thoughts create and choosing how you react. This takes a life time of effort and self analysis to master, which is why it is a mindfulness ‘practice’. If you see your mind as separate from ‘you’, your inner self or voice of calm, as I call it, then you can start to see how you could observe your thinking from a distance.

Living in the present moment

At the heart of mindfulness is the concept of the present moment being the one and only thing that ever matters. So when we stop our minds from wondering off like naughty puppies, it is back to the present moment that we want to guide them. What is happening right now? How is everything in this moment? Thinking beyond the present moment is very natural but can cause stress, anxiety and depression if we obsess or act in ways that are mindless. The aim is to notice the mind has escaped us, lovingly tap it on the shoulder and bring it back to the present.

Meditation is a powerful way to train the brain to be more mindful and to cultivate a calm mental state. However, meditation and mindfulness are two different things although they are often confused.

The difference between mindfulness and meditation

When people say that mindfulness doesn’t work I’m pretty confident that they have mistaken mindfulness for meditation. They are not the same thing.

Meditation is to mindfulness what stretching is to running. You can run without stretching but it’s way easier and safer to stretch afterwards. It keeps your body in good shape and makes you a much more efficient runner, less prone to injury. In the same way, meditation is honing the mindful skill: observing your thinking and clearing your mind. But crucially meditation is not mindfulness.

You can be mindful and never meditate. It would be tricky I think but not impossible. You can also meditate and not be mindful. There are many different types of meditation and not all are specific to mindfulness.

Meditation is a mind activity. It is dedicating a period of time to clearing your mind of thoughts, coming into your internal awareness so you can observe rogue thinking and return yourself to a state of calm.

Deep breathing is a big part of mindful meditation because it calms the body and focuses the mind. Meditation can be done sitting, cross legged with your hands resting on your knees and palms facing up. However, there are many other forms of meditation such as walking and chanting.

The difference between meditation and relaxation

Here’s another very different activity. Lie on your bed with your eyes closed and your hands resting on your stomach. Breath deeply and focus your attention on your feet. Imagine them melting like ice-cream in the sun so that the muscles completely relax. Continue up your body to your lower legs, upper legs, hips and so on, until you have relaxed every muscle in your body. If you manage to get to your shoulders before falling asleep then you have just done a relaxation exercise. It’s a wonderful tool to calm your body and mind and can really help you get to sleep but it’s not a meditation.

When someone says, ‘CBD oil will replace mindfulness as the new fad’Β I figure they are referring to relaxation. CBD oil (an extract from the cannabis plant) is apparently great for relaxation and pain. I have never tried it but I know people who swear by it for sleep and joint aches. It certainly sounds like it’s more than a fad but it can’t replace mindfulness because mindfulness is neither pain relief nor a relaxation technique.

That’s not to say I don’t feel relaxed after some meditations but equally I can feel supercharged after meditating and ready to take on the whole world. Mindfulness is a multi-faceted way of life.

Mindfulness is a life long practice, not a quick fix

When someone says, ‘I tried mindfulness and it didn’t work for me’ it’s like saying, ‘I tried happiness and it didn’t work for me.’ It’s not a wash in wash out hair colour or an antacid. Mindfulness is a state of mind, an ongoing practice which you work on throughout your life.

On my journey into mindfulness my understanding has deepened but when I first started out I was guessing. I used visualisations, which I had learned in my psychotherapy training and this later developed into meditation. From there I started to grasp the idea that my whole life was a sort of living meditation or a mindful activity. Rather than confining my clarity and peace to a 20 minute window of meditation I came to understand that observing my thoughts and feelings was something I could do all day long. Moreover, doing this gave me a sense of equilibrium I was definitely lacking.

Committing to living without alcohol was another milestone on my mindful journey. Drinking regularly went against everything I was trying to cultivate in myself. Mindfulness enabled me to take that leap.

I have been practicing mindfulness knowingly for about 10 years. Prior to that I had been doing mindful activities without realising they were mindful. Yoga, a jigsaw puzzle, pitching a tent or creating a piece of art can all be done mindfully. Any activity that is undertaken with full attention to the task and the present moment, is mindful. Try it for yourself.

Mindful activities you can try today

Think of your mind as a puppy that wants to run away and chew things. You want to keep bringing it back to you and this moment. The challenge lies in stopping your thoughts from drifting off. Give your full attention to what you are doing and try to maintain even breaths: the same length of inhale as exhale, which can also anchor you in the now. Try some of the below:

  • Wash up with all your attention. How does the water feel on your skin? What sound does that brush make against the plate? Give these things your whole mind.
  • Drive mindfully. Breath deeply a few times before you start your car. Notice how your weight shifts as the car turns corners. Stay fully engaged with driving. (This is a very safe way to drive)
  • Listen with your whole body. When you are talking to someone give them your whole self. In that moment your only job is to hear them speak. Not even to respond, just to listen and respect their story.
  • Be a good mind trainer. When you start chatting in your head with someone who isn’t there just say to yourself, ‘Nope. We’re not doing that right now.’ And then bring all your attention to what you are doing in that moment. It will take practice.
  • Try a guided meditation. Anything on youtube by Deepak Chopra should do it but here’s a good one. Sit in a quiet space, close your eyes and calm your breathing.

Remember, this stuff doesn’t always come easily so be kind and loving to yourself. If at first you don’t succeed try, try again. Tomorrow I will be talking ‘Puppy Training 101: How to get your mind to walk to heel’.