What is mindfulness actually?
More and more people are talking about it. They may even be able to trot out a definition of what it is, as there have been so many articles in the press about it recently. But what does it actually mean to be mindful? Why has it become so high profile? And what can you gain from it, in this high speed, digitally driven, stressed out world in which we live?
Until January this year, I was making the journey between Hove and London about four times a week. The journey was a well trodden path. One dark and stormy winter’s day, the trip was dominated by thoughts about a dear relative who was very ill and there were grave doubts about how things would turn out over the next few days.
My head was full of thoughts about whether to make the trip to go and see him, how I could plan that around work, what the future held, how everyone would cope, what if.., what if.., what if…. Underneath all this, there was a feeling of deep sadness, a tightness in my tummy and chest and tension in my walk. Memories of times together kept replaying in my head.
Suddenly, I realised that I had reached my final destination! Somehow I had stepped off the first train, negotiated the mainline station, walked to the correct line on the underground, boarded the correct train and alighted at the right stop. Without even thinking about it. Or even being aware of what was going on around me. Not even noticing how I’d done it. Deep in my own thought bubble, I was totally on autopilot.
Most of the time this is how we operate. Deeply buried in the thoughts in our heads. Most of the time we are simply not present. We are preoccupied with the endless chatter in our heads. About the past. About the future. About endless streams of stuff that have nothing to do with the present moment.
Goodness knows how I made it that day. Well, that’s not entirely true. I do know a bit about how. There’s a part of the brain called the hippocampus which is partly responsible for memory. Together with other well orchestrated patterns ingrained in my brain, my autopilot had saved the day. Millions of nerve cells had been wired together so strongly by repetition of the journey that they’d formed neural pathways, superhighways of information embedded in my brain, that created an internal map. Once one bit of the pathway got triggered the rest followed like night follows day.
How many times have you driven home and realised you were somewhere else in your head most of the time. You get home and realise you took in nothing of the actual journey. Or reached the bottom of a page you’re reading and not taken anything in? When you’re listening to someone, are you in fact listening, or are you rehearsing your response? They mention their mum, and you go off on a tangent thinking about your mum.
How much of the time are you actually present?
Or is your life passing you by, while you’re busy ruminating on the past or worrying about the future? Is your life, “what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans?”
This is where mindfulness steps in. It brings back our ability to live our lives with a sense of curiosity and calm, perspective and balance, so that even challenging times become infused with poise and presence.
Our inability to be present, in the here and now, aware of what we are experiencing right now, is a major source of stress. And stress is the underlying cause of nearly all modern day ills, both physical and mental. In my one to one work and the courses that I run, stress is the thing that is causing people’s dis-ease.
The endless chatter in our heads determines the quality of our day to day existence and how we feel about ourselves. Most of the chatter, when examined, is not helpful and a lot if it is quite self destructive. And repetitive. See if you can take an audit of the inner dialogue going on in your head today. How often do the same kinds of thoughts crop up? To what extent do you have any choice about your reactions to events around you? How much of the time are you actually on autopilot? Do you really have any choice?
Stop right now. Feel your feet on the ground and get a sense of where your feet are in touch with the ground. Become aware of your breathing. Notice the sounds going on around you.
Notice what thoughts you are having and what bodily sensations arise. What is going on right now, within you and around you? Connect with that with kindness and acceptance, without judgement or wanting to change anything. This moment is as it is. Experience that fully.
Be present to what is with gentle curiosity. In this place of presence, there is a connectedness with yourself, a moment of peace and acceptance with the present moment and the world around you. This cuts through the preoccupation with your thinking, thinking about your thinking as if it were real, the constant conversation in your head about the past and the future.
This is the essence of mindfulness, the awareness that arises out of intentionally paying attention to what is happening right now with an attitude of open acceptance and compassion.