Using the term mindfulness has become trendy. It is often used to describe being more thoughtful or courteous. But what is mindfulness, really? Ironically, mindfulness is more about getting out of our heads than deeper into them. Mindfulness is an informal practice of formal meditation. It is intentionally maintaining heightened awareness of our internal experience and the reality occurring around us, without judging or analyzing it.
According to the monk Nyanaponika Thera, mindfulness is achieving freedom of the mind and a tool for shaping it. When we are mindful, we are present with intention and a particular attitude and purpose, shifting away from automatic states where we are distracted and dwelling on the past or future. When we live mindfully, the internal noise does not govern our presence or take us away from deeper experiences. Instead, it is opening our minds to observe, accept and engage reality in a more inclusive and authentic way.
A Bit of History
While not constrained by its historical origins, mindful practices are least 2,500 years old extending from Buddhist traditions. In the 1970s, Jon Kabat-Zinn began using mindfulness as a secular term to cultivate more western acceptance of Buddhist teachings into mainstream healthcare settings. For a natural spiritualist, mindfulness practice leads to moments of richer experiences and for some, can ultimately facilitate a state of self-actualization and personal enlightenment.
I’m no Buddhist
If mindfulness feels a little too Buddhist for you, no worries, while it traces its origins to Buddhism, mindfulness is a secular practice with scientifically proven physiological and psychological benefits. In fact, its benefits have been validated by hundreds of research studies conducted by institutions including Harvard University and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). “But so have pharmaceutical drugs”, one might say. The difference is that mindfulness empowers us, rather than makes us dependent, and enables us to:
- Be less controlled by emotions and thoughts and less likely to follow them with habitual reactive patterns;
- Respond with greater clarity and freedom of choice to cognitive, emotional, and behavioral stimulation; and
- Witness our life story with greater objectivity and recognize what is truly meaningful in our moment to moment experiences.
Tips for Practicing Mindfulness
Tip 1: Meditate
Meditation is training in the art of disentangling yourself from the random thought processes or “thinking mind”. The more you exercise, the more calories you burn throughout the day. Likewise, with meditation, the more you observe the “thinking mind” and return to state of focus or mental stillness, the easier it is to cultivate a mindful presence throughout the day. In a simple form, meditation can be practiced by simply witnessing thoughts and returning focus to the breath.
Tip 2: Take Mindful Pauses
Our thinking mind is always restless, hurled around by random thoughts, impulses and emotions like a fallen leaf in the wind. Even when we are experiencing meaningful moments, the mind is quick to shift to patterns of distant memories or fantasies of reality. Our internal thoughts, not our circumstances, create most stress in our lives. Punctuate your day with mindful pauses when you practice returning to your breath as an anchor to the richness of the present moment. Set up regular reminders, such as each time you are at a stop light or receive a text message. You don’t need to close your eyes or be in a formal meditation to shift to the observer.
Tip 3: Use Mindful Reflection Time
A mindful practice does not mean you have to avoid reflection or planning. It includes creating time to reflect on experiences with a particular attitude and purpose. Allow your natural wisdom and higher intention, not lower-self patterns or stories, to guide your thinking process and dive into reality with it. We have evolved to pay greater attention to threats and to remember painful experiences more as a means of survival. Practice letting go of dwelling memories and negative bias once you have discovered useful insight from them.
The more we practice mindfulness, the more we become aware of our consciousness, observing the observer that is our state of oneness with the universe and the energy that connects all living beings. Next time you are in a crowded elevator, do not fret and instead take a mindful pause and drop an invisible mic, because you are now on your way to some Dalai Lama awesomeness or perhaps, just a more joyful life where you experience the richness of moments more fully and go through your days more awake and alive.