What is Mindfulness?
The two most common ways I hear mindfulness explained are ‘being in the moment’ and ‘being aware’.
So, let’s break these down and explain what they mean.
Being in the moment
One of the key aims of mindfulness is developing the ability to focus your attention in the present moment.
This is an intrinsic human ability that we all have. If you want to see what it looks like you just need to observe young children at play.
It’s beautiful to watch. They are completely in the moment. They aren’t thinking about the past or the future. They are simply focused on the current moment and whatever it is they are doing; be it building a sandcastle, painting a picture, or trying to jam a paddle pop stick into a power outlet. 🙂
As adults, we’ve all experienced moments like this as well (being in the moment I mean, not the paddle pop stick!)
For me, it often happens when I’m in nature, such as swimming in the ocean and feeling the waves wash over me, the touch of the sand on my feet and the sensation of the sun on my back.
Or perhaps you’ve experienced it while watching a sunset. Where you are fully immersed in the moment and can truly appreciate the colour of the sky, the smell of the fresh air and the sensation of the warm breeze on your face.
But so much of our life is spent not living in the moment. We are ruminating about things that happened in the past, or worrying about things that are yet to happen.
“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.”Buddha
If you’ve ever driven home and then realised you can’t remember the last four sets of traffic lights you passed, then you’ve experienced what it’s like to be lost in your thoughts.
Mindfulness teaches you to recognise when your thoughts are wandering and bring them back to the present moment.
This is a skill that can help you be more focused and productive at work. But it will also help you be more present and engaged when you get home to your partner and kids. Or perhaps it means you can appreciate that delicious meal or a warm shower just a little bit more because you are truly in the moment.
If we want to get the most out of life, it’s important to be living in the moment. It’s about stopping to smell the roses. And that’s where mindfulness can help.
The second part of mindfulness is awareness. And when we talk about awareness, there are four key components: your thoughts, senses, emotions and body.
Awareness of your thoughts
Our minds are always busy, with thousands of neurons firing and thoughts bouncing around. Even while we sleep, our minds continue triggering thoughts in the form of dreams.
These thoughts are important. They provide us with valuable ideas and information which we use to make decisions and create amazing things. But they can also be distracting. And some thoughts can be misleading or potentially damaging.
It’s important to realise that you are not your thoughts. You can choose to observe your thoughts and treat them like a third person.
It’s what’s sometimes referred to as being “the silent watcher”.
Mindfulness helps you become more aware of our thoughts so you can choose when to listen to them and when to let them pass by.
Awareness of your senses
Our senses enrich our experience of life. And like thoughts, they provide us with valuable information.
But often, we are not tuned into our senses, so we are either not enjoying life to its fullest or we are missing some valuable information.
Mindfulness helps you become more aware of your senses: touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste, so you can choose when and how to tune into them.
Awareness of your emotions
Being aware of our emotions is another key part of being mindful.
Like thoughts, it’s easy to let our emotions rule us. But by being more aware of our emotions, we can start to observe them and choose how we respond.
Some emotions will be enjoyable and some may be difficult. But it’s important to remember that all emotions are temporary. They come and they go. So if we observe something we don’t like, we don’t need to fight it, we can just wait for it to pass.
One way to think of it is like the weather. We don’t control the weather, but we have to live with it. If it’s raining, then we know it will pass. And when it’s sunny, we know that one day it will rain again.
It’s the same with emotions. Nothing is permanent and we are going to experience all four seasons at different times. That’s okay.
By being able to observe and acknowledge your emotions, in a mindful way, you can have more control over how you respond. It doesn’t mean you ignore your emotions, but you can recognise them for what they are, rather than unconsciously letting them control your life.
Awareness of your body
The fourth element of awareness is the body.
As with thoughts, emotions and senses, our bodies provide important information that we can use to make decisions and enhance our lives. So it’s important to be tuned in to what’s happening with your body.
Our bodies are closely linked to our emotions. And we can often notice the early signs of emotion in our bodies, such as butterflies in the stomach for anxiety, or blushing and sweating for embarrassment.
But just as emotions trigger physical responses, the reverse is also true – our bodies can be used to trigger emotional responses.
By being aware of this link, you can start to use your body to influence your emotions, such as standing up straight to feel more confident or breathing slowly to calm your nerves.
How can you practise mindfulness?
There are many different ways to practise mindfulness and most of them don’t require you to sit in the lotus position or meditate.
In fact, you can incorporate mindfulness into everyday activities such as eating, listening to music or taking the dog for a walk. Being mindful just means you are focusing on the activity and using your awareness to be in the moment.
There are lots of kid-friendly activities that will help children practise mindfulness, such as colouring in, blowing bubbles and staring at clouds.
But generally, if you really want to improve your mindfulness, one of the most popular ways is to practise meditation.
A Simple 5-minute Mindfulness Meditation
To get you started – here is a very simple mindfulness meditation I like to use. It’s designed to help you tune into all four components of awareness.
Time needed: 5 minutes.
How To Do A Simple Mindfulness Meditation
- Getting Started
Find somewhere quiet and sit in a comfortable position. This could be cross-legged on the floor or in a chair with your back straight and your hands on your lap. You could even do this meditation whilst sitting on a park bench during your lunch break.
Close your eyes and take three slow deep breaths through your nose. As you breathe, focus on the sensation of the air entering and leaving your body. Some people like to imagine positive energy entering and negative energy leaving. Keep breathing slowly and focusing on each individual breath in and out.
- Noticing your thoughts
Whenever you are meditating, it’s normal that thoughts will enter your mind and sometimes your mind may wander – that’s okay. But, whenever you notice a thought, just observe it, acknowledge it, and then let it pass. And bring your attention back to your breath.
- Tune into your touch
Start by noticing the sensation of the air on your nostrils. Observe the temperature as it enters and leaves – does it change?
Then move to your face, can you feel a breeze or any other sensations on your face?
Now, try to feel your hair touching your head.
And then focus on your shirt touching your shoulders, your bottom touching the seat and your hands touching your lap.
And finally, focus on your feet and feel them connecting with the ground.
- Tune into your hearing
Focus all your attention on your hearing – what sounds can you notice? Start with the sounds close to you and work your way further out. When you notice these sounds, just observe them. Notice the way they appear and disappear into silence.
- Tune into your smell
Take a few deep breaths and focus on your sense of smell. What smells can you notice in the air?
- Tune into your taste
What tastes are in your mouth? Maybe you will notice saliva and need to take a swallow.
- Softly open your eyes and blur your vision
Slightly open your eyes so you are squinting and your vision is blurred. Don’t sharpen your focus on anything, just notice the different shapes and colours and how wide your field of vision is. Tune into your sense of vision for about 30 seconds. Then close your eyes again and bring your attention back to your breathing.
- Body Scan
Do a mental body scan from top to bottom, working your way down and noticing any aches, pains, stiffness or other sensations. Don’t analyse them, just observe them.
- Tune into your emotions
Move your focus inside your body and try to notice any emotions you can feel in your body. Maybe some anxiety in our chest, fear in your stomach or happiness in your heart. If you notice something, just observe the sensation. Is it heavy or light? What shape is it? Is it moving? Does it have a colour? Is it changing? Spend as long as you like just observing the feeling. And if you can’t notice anything, that’s okay as well. Don’t put pressure on yourself, just try it again next time.
- Time to finish
Now move your attention back to your breathing and take a few more slow breaths. Rub the palms of your hands together to generate some warmth. Cover your eyes with your warm palms and feel the sensation on your closed eyes. Blink a few times before opening your eyes and removing your hands.
Welcome back! Well done!
More Mindfulness Resources
- ABC’s Mindfully Podcast
Hosted by ex-AFL Footballer Brett Kirk, this podcast provides a great introduction to mindfulness with interview, tips and tricks and short guided meditations. A great place to start your journey.
Guided meditations by a former monk with a strong British accent, Andy Puddicombe. I find his voice soothing and the wide range of different meditations is impressive. They offer a free 2-week trial, but after that, you’ll need to pay a monthly or annual fee. It’s worth the cost if you want to get continue practising meditation.
- Sam Harris
Sam Harris is a well-known philosopher and neuroscientist, who has practised meditation for over 30 years and has studied with various gurus from Tibet, India and Burma. He offers a scientific approach to mindfulness and has books, online courses, a podcast and an app. If you want to dig a bit deeper into the science of mediation, Sam is your man.