The simple meaning of Mindfulness is
'remembering to be aware' - whether it be during meditation, or while doing anything,
anywhere, any time.
There are, however, specific techniques and ideas
which, collectively, we refer to as 'Mindfulness', and when
these are applied
in meditation practice, they have the potential to increase the
beneficial outcomes of that practice enormously. Below I go
into more detail about why this is so.
Additionally, the logical and highly practical nature of
Mindfulness can also positively influence our day-to-day activities away from the
meditation cushion (or chair).
While the techniques and
related concepts of Mindfulness meditation are associated with a
variety of both ancient and
contemporary modalities for wellbeing, it's generally considered
a method taught and practiced in the context of
Buddhism, which is a non-sectarian
philosophy founded in India around 400BC by the Buddha Shakyamuni.
Before discussing more about Mindfulness it's
important to explain a few basic things about meditation as it may
be easier to
understand why Mindfulness is a useful concept and how it's
The first thing to resolve is the idea
that meditation is about emptying the mind of thoughts and/or creating
kind of mental oblivion. For most of us, the capacity to fully
still the mind is beyond our grasp and so when we come to try
meditation without proper guidance, we may think we've failed if
the thoughts just keep coming and so we give up.
The concept of meditation is based on the fact
that the typical mind is full of busy thoughts that are
difficult to silence. Hence, it teaches us how to deal with this
by applying concentration exercises to tame the mental activity.
It sounds easy but is difficult to do - at first. We have to
accept in coming to meditation looking for a solution, that it
will take a little time and application of these exercises to
overcome both the chatter of our minds, as well as the idea that
it's impossible to find any peace from it. Importantly, it is
the impact of our attitudes to what we experience in meditation
as much as the exercises themselves that brings about what we
may think of as a good outcome from meditating, and it is here
that Mindfulness comes in on the scene.
Before going there, however,
let's remember that rather than being a head-clearing exercise,
meditation is about acknowledging our hectic mental activity in
order to deal effectively with it. This involves us developing a
mental alertness to the chaos going on in our heads, and then
focusing the mind in ways that allow the busy-ness to gently
abate without resistance. In brief, it is our resistance to our
thoughts - our attempts to push or force them out of our mind as
we search for stillness that may actually reinforce them. Allow
the flow of acceptance, non-judgement and non-attachment to wash
them from our mind. Applying this attitude will help the mind
There is nothing mystical
about this most basic of meditation techniques from which all
others have evolved. It is a fundamental discipline, a training
of the mind which makes it able to focus at will, and hence
become calm and still. Meditation training supports you in
opening up to the realisation that the true nature of your mind
- that is, this calmness and stillness - is perhaps more
accessible than you imagined.
The normal state of mind
is not the true nature of mind Most
people find it difficult to meditate because the brain is habitually distracted, passing from one thought to the
next. It gets caught
up in the past, in thought-stories, or planning for the
future - all because, among other things, it wants simply to be satisfied
seeks seemingly never-ending fulfilment, usually through the
While this is an experience which is normal for
more of us, meditation time is not intended for 'normal thinking'! It is, in fact, time away from this habitual
to our desires for the 'next and better thing' and an attempt to be truly in the present moment,
from where the brain can rest and be able to improve its overall function.
The other important characteristic of the mind to
be aware of is its inherent true nature of calmness, which lies under
chaos of thought and distraction - like the sky that's present
beneath clouds, pollution or even night's darkness. The sky goes
on forever - always clear, endlessly bright.
It's important to remember this true nature of
our mind because if we
know, through our personal experience, that this nature exists, we can also expect meditation practice
to ultimately work, and to know why. We can free ourselves, if
even for a moment, from stress and depression, because we know
there is something much more authentic to us than this anguish.
If we know we can tap into
this space beyond our thoughts through meditation, we can also be more patient and
persistent in seeking it out. By revealing it to ourselves as we
practice, our knowledge and confidence grows that
when given the chance, the passage of thoughts will slow, and
the mind will become quieter and still.
As I've mentioned, meditation is about being truly
alive in the present and recognising the benefits this gives
The process of meditation is
based around building a capacity for mental
concentration - usually on a single object such as
our breath. It is this concentration
and its refinement over time that essentially delivers all the things we may be looking for
from meditation, like mental
clarity, calmness, stress management, lower blood pressure, and so on.
Just try it for a moment:
1) Sit down, take a
breath. Close your eyes and turn your attention inward.
2) Allow your attention
now to drift onto focusing on your breath. Let your shoulders
drop; take another breath.
3) Mentally watch the
breath as it moves in and out of your upper body and stomach ...
in and out ... in and out.
Notice if your breathing is tight or free ... just
notice, and continue to breathe.
Try to maintain your focus on the breath for a few
minutes and allow yourself to become familiar with how this
You may notice that in order to stay focused on the
breath, you also need to stay in the present moment.
4) After a while of
doing this your mind may begin to wander - away from the focus
on the breath, and hence away from the
If this happen, just notice that your mind has been
distracted and guide it back to your process of watching the
Bring your attention back to the breath's process of
moving in and out of your body - in the present moment.
5) When you wish to
cease the exercise, gently open your eyes, take a breath, and
check on how you feel - maybe you feel
different, maybe you don't. Just notice.
While an exercise like this might be useful for
times of high stress, in order for its benefits to be maximised,
it really needs to become a regular feature of your life.
Now, that may be all when and good, but full and
complete focus and concentration, even for a moment, is
something most of us find
very difficult. Well intentioned, we sit down, close our
eyes and the brain seems to flood with distracting thoughts,
which can become even more troublesome if we try and push them
away. We wonder how on earth can we possibly expect to meditate - to
clear our mind - with so much
chatter going on.
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So, we need something to help
us come to terms with the fact that the mind is naturally full
of thoughts that want to go their
own way and have us accompany
them. We need to be able to apply techniques to help us tame
these thoughts and allow
us to maintain our calming focus on the
object of our meditation to find the present moment, stay there
as long as possible
in order to gain the benefits.
As mentioned above, 'success'
in meditation is also attained by looking at our attitudes to
what we experience when we try to meditate as much as the
results of undertaking the actual process of concentration. This
is because it is often our attitudes, emotions and self-talk
that takes us away from the beautiful and refreshing process of
simply focusing the mind on a single purpose.
encourage and help us observe and learn how our mind works. A good way of describing Mindfulnessis
that is it the deliberate act of
paying attention to the present moment, free of the
which usually accompanies contemplation or observation of our
thoughts and other processes. It can be wholly
practiced and applied
free from ideological or cultural trappings, and does not
involve visualisation techniques.
In essence, Mindfulness teaches us to calmly anticipate the
coming and going of thoughts, emotions, sensations, etc. so they
can be released without our attachment to them, and allowed to
abate with our wanting to control or manipulate them in any way.
We grow in self-awareness and
in a basic realisation that these are not permanent fixtures of
our mind or, indeed, of our identity.
Through Mindfulness we learn
valuable things about ourselves from observing how we react, for
example, to the
dissatisfaction of sitting positions, or the agitation that
arises because of our resistance to noises around us when we are
trying to concentrate. Mindfulness helps us notice and form
our emotions so we can manage and appreciate
them for what they really are - something fleeting, changing and
the subject only of our attitudes which are often formed by
external influences. Mindfulness allows us to grow in precious awareness of
all of this through non-conditional observation of ourselves and how we live
from moment to moment.
It is an important aspect of
Mindfulness that as we observe all of this about ourselves that
we do so
applying non-judgment to what we see. learn and know about
ourselves. Without an agreement with ourself to try to abandon
judgment of ourselves and our practice, effectiveness of Mindfulness
techniques is not really possible.
In Mindfulness meditation training we begin by
first learning to observe simple processes such as the breath
(as outlined above) and the feelings that are present in our physical body. From the outset, this simplification and focusing
of mental tasks slows the
mind and allows it to relax,
engendering immediate stillness and calm. It is the ability to
observe and recognise this relatively quick response that proves
perhaps that the true nature of our mind - represented by the
calmness - is but a mere breath away. And being apparently so
accessible, this knowledge, borne of our observation, provides
us with encouragement and tenacity in our meditation practice.
From this point we learn ways to develop our
observation skills and enhance how we apply the benefits. By
acquiring knowledge of some of the related concepts of Mindfulness, such
as impermanence and interconnection, we begin to apply our
Mindfulness in all areas of
life, not just whilst meditating, with often amazingly useful
Many people learn meditation
in a group class, which is very helpful as the shared experience
seems to inspire and create
more discipline. We also get to ask questions and hear others'
experience, from which we can really grow in our
understanding of what we are trying to achieve.
In traditional Mindfulness training, this
awareness is studied in four basic areas:
1) Mindfulness of the Body
– observation of one's physical form, its movement and processes
(such as breathing, walking,
2) Mindfulness of Feelings
– observation of both mental and physical sensations or impressions, and
whether they are, for
example, pleasant, unpleasant or neutral;
3) Mindfulness of Mind
– observing and recognising states of mind, moods or
4) Mindfulness of Mind Objects
– observing thoughts and categories of thought.
The overall objective of
Mindfulness is to study how our mind works and then use this
information to apply practical ways we
can maintain our focus on the present moment. What we also gain
in the process is a much greater self-awareness, which is
highly valuable for all areas of our life.
Reflection is the act of stepping back away from the normal
day-to-day activities in order to think clearly about them. It's
often the first act of awareness that the mind needs to relax in
order to work efficiently, and it can't do this if it's
being asked to react.
Also, reflection is a way of
calming the mind before commencing a session of meditation -
especially if you are coming from
a busy or stressful time when it's very difficult to just go straight into your
meditation. It can also be a way of practicing some
techniques of meditation when it's not possible to carry out a
normal sitting practice, such as when in public, facing a
situation, or going for a walk.
Through the increased awareness, concentration and insights we
learn from Mindfulness, we potentially improve all aspects
our lives. We communicate better, work more efficiently, and can genuinely relax. This is due in part to the potential of
Mindfulness to allow us to observe experiences free of
distortion, aversion or fantasy, and the often intense
attitudes we attach to them which increase our
anxiety about them.
As Mindfulness encourages us to cultivate
more skilful mental states, we may also become more energetic
connect with our passions and feel a much greater
sense of wellbeing overall.
Being truly in the present rather than operating on
‘auto-pilot’ means we have greater control over the outcome of
of all kinds – especially those involving stress.
Further, we may use Mindfulness skills to overcome cravings,
deep moods or
worry, and through them we tap into stillness and
They can also be applied to potentially improve
the management of chronic pain, serious depression and acute
Studies on the effects of meditation carried out since
the 1970s also show it’s very good for our general physical
As with any new activity intended to impact your
wellbeing, the success of otherwise of meditation will depend on
a number of
factors. While simple, meditation is not necessarily
easy and the effect of your meditation sessions will vary simply
your state of mind and/or body feelings will vary from
day to day. While these changes, in themselves, can actually
part of your meditation practice, you will need some
discipline to establish a regular practice that produces the
benefits. Having said that, the more stand-alone Mindfulness
principles demonstrated by through its techniques are very
useful for observing and dealing with daily challenges.
While it's rare, some people do not find
meditation a comfortable activity and will thus be recommended
not to continue with
it. By "uncomfortable" I mean, a mental
uneasiness which is not to be confused
with the normal experience of meditation
where there are various
kinds of discomfort associated with
trying to still the usual chaotic nature of our
mind or because we
be sitting for extended periods without a lot of body movement.
The kind of discomfort I'm referring to here is things like
increased anxiety or an intense feeling of disassociation from
reality. And anyone with a psychotic illness should, generally
attempt meditation. Further, those who suffer
trauma to do
with their body should also take care with the process as, for
example, 'mindfulness of body' is a main
technique used in Mindfulness and may engender emotions and
responses which cause upset and even relapse.
As with the learning anything new you'll need
to apply effort and be tenacious with your practice of
meditation if you're to
gain its greatest benefits. This means
that once having learned them, you will ideally set aside some
time daily (even
beginning with five to ten minutes and then
building on the duration) to become more familiar with
Mindfulness skills and
gain their immediate results. This is
what basically constitutes a foundation for a regular practice
but any time at all spent on
Mindfulness-based exercises will also
contribute to some degree of positive outcome.
There is also be room for flexibility: the
underlying meaning of Mindfulness is sometimes as much about the
you make to be aware as actually 'doing it'. But
for it to be assimilated so it has a positive impact anywhere,
anytime you will
need to have the basic skills firmly in place,
and this takes practise.
No. Mindfulness practice is effective regardless
of belief system or ideology, etc.
As with any similar exploration, an open mind is
essential when learning Mindfulness. This is because we are
inviting discoveries about ourselves and taking on challenges
that meditation practice may present us.
You may also have to accept that new, more
productive habits may replace older and/or less-appropriate ones
and that this
may involve challenges because you have adopted changes in
your lifestyle (regardless of the fact they are welcome).
Some degree of willingness to be self-disciplined is helpful and also
needed to produce sustainable results.
The short answer is, yes, of course you can, but
with some qualification.
Increasingly mental health care workers of
various disciplines are looking to understand how Mindfulness
can be of benefit to
their clients. Please be aware, though, that there are no short
cuts to this ... a weekend workshop or
short retreat is not really enough to introduce the Mindfulness
techniques with your clients when you have little experience in what to
expect and help them overcome challenges and obstacles.
I always suggest to my therapist students that
they establish a meditation practice themselves first before
introducing it to
clients. The reasons for this are several:
first, meditation is thought to be harmless; but as stated
above, it is not suitable
for everyone, and even those who have
never had any kind of mental illness or similar problem can experience
discomfort when beginning meditation.
clients have any kind of serious mental illness it's wise to
abandon plans to introduce meditation - at least until
stable for a long period. This is especially true for those
clients who have any disassociation symptoms or
to the physical body, as Mindfulness techniques necessarily
focus a lot on the body,
its feelings and sensations, etc. as part of
Some of the easier exercises,
such as simply focusing on the breath or partially using the 'body scan'
technique as a decentring
exercise are potentially highly
beneficial for clients - especially those needing pain
management or who suffer depression
and/or anxiety. But I highly recommend you supervise this process
and are fully aware of any discomfort the client may experience during
the process or as a result of doing the exercises.
Establishing your own
Mindfulness meditation practice will also give you first-hand
insights into, for example, the
unpredictability of one's
personal experience of meditation and how much the challenging
process of non-self-judgement is
key to the success of applying
Mindfulness techniques. Furthermore, working knowledge is
required of the various related
concepts related to Mindfulness,
and experience of how and when to apply them to help ensure that
a individual practice is
as successful as possible.
Having said all that, it is also interesting to note and very
positive that a lot
of people can relate logically to Mindfulness and will want to
its ideas to their work. But the key to success of teaching and
promoting the use of Mindfulness is found in a commitment to
its practice. If nothing else, this also means the sometimes
difficult act of introducing Mindfulness to clients will be
Regardless, as a Mindfulness practitioner yourself, you will
become aware you can find all sorts of ways of incorporating the
concepts - even without the need for clients to practice it
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