The research on Mindfulness has proven that it is beneficial for a long list of problems that people can suffer. From relationships to insomnia, depression to confidence, and from creativity to resilience, all the evidence is positive.
Mindfulness can help. But it’s hard for most non-practitioners to see how sitting quietly on the floor can do all that.
Yet anyone who has practised regular mindfulness will attest to the benefits. The exact list will vary from person to person, but everyone will have an extensive list. Many can be reduced to one of three primary benefits.
The amazing power of opening up and being less reactive
Mindfulness practice opens us up to experience in the present moment. The highly respected author of many mindfulness books, Jon Kabut-Zinn says, “you have only moments to live,” and he’s right is he not?
This moment, and this one, and this one. We can only really live within each moment. The rest is all remembering and imagination.
To be open to the present moment we must learn not to fight it, flee from it, or judge it. We must embrace everything exactly as we experience it at that point of time.
In doing so we discover that moment-to-moment experience – even the experience of sitting quietly – is complex and always changing. Emotions, body sensation, sounds, thoughts, the stream of images in your mind, and all other experiences that you can sense are all there. Always in motion, changing from second to second.
These experiences can be good, bad or neither. As you sit you simply notice them move through you. You do not judge or interfere, (as far as is possible). If you get distracted, or caught up in your thoughts, you begin again. Bringing your awareness back to the present moment.
It’s not easy at first. We’re used to interfering. Were used to getting involved. Commenting, critiquing and labelling our experiences.
And the mind doesn’t stop just because you’re trying not to pay attention. It still continues chatting, scolding, commenting, replaying memories or future projections in our minds.
Eventually though this begins to die away. You begin to get used to all the coming and going, you begin to realise the sensations and emotions can’t harm you, and you begin to stop reacting.
You don’t have to follow your thoughts or feelings.
They can be experienced, but not acted on.
Some are good, some are bad, all of them pass.
You can choose whether to accept or ignore them. You can choose whether they guide your action or not.
This is the first major benefit of mindfulness – you stop being reactive. As Jon Kabat-Zinn put it “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf”.
Noticing the power, poignancy and beauty of ordinary moments
Once you stop reacting to your experience, and once you become more comfortable in this churning melee of emotions and thoughts, then the future looks and feels different. Anything can unfold, including in the next few minutes.
Attuned to your senses, your surroundings become richer. Skies are filled with birds and clouds, colours are sharper, smells stronger and tastes crisper. Subtle changes in temperature and mood become noticeable.
Moments of poignancy are rare and often come when we least expect them. They come when were not lost in thought and when we’re paying attention to the present moment. Mindfulness practice trains us in both. Increasing the power, poignancy and beauty of our ordinary moments.
Free from reactivity we become more aware of the beauty of ordinary life. Free from neediness and fear we have greater self-acceptance and choice.
That’s where the power of noticing ordinary moments and the power of not reacting comes from. Because if we notice, if we don’t react we can choose.
The power of recognizing destructive urges and breaking from them
Once you are more present, more aware of the present moment, you can notice cravings or emotions unfolding without indulging in them. It becomes easier to stop eating junk food between meals, leave the cigarette in the packet, and put the bins out at night without an argument. It becomes easier to recognize your anger before it spills out into an unnecessary argument. It becomes easier to recognize your fear before a presentation causes you to shake.
The urges and emotions are still there. Only now you recognize them as passing experiences. You can ride the wave without letting it carry you tumbled and broken on the shore gasping for breath.
You refrain from your usual behaviour this time. You ride the disappointment until it passes. But it doesn’t last long. Next time you ride the same wave. After a while you notice two things. One that the waves are coming less and less and two you are enjoying the still and calm between. Soon a new habit is formed and you’re used to living a new way.
Impulses and emotions become less compelling. And we begin to act in ways that benefit us in the long-term, not just in ways that allow us to feel good in the moment.
The importance of making a start no matter how experienced you are.
We are not born experts at Mindfulness. Nor can we become experts overnight. Few of us have been taught to cultivate openness to experience at all.
Thankfully, by doing just a small amount of mindfulness practice consistently (even as little as 3 minutes a day) you can fast increase your skill level. You grow the option of bringing awareness into the moments of your day. Whether it’s connecting with loved ones, presence at meetings at work, or simply eating your lunch while noticing the flavours and taking a few minutes out for yourself.
Soon you’ll notice more happiness, freedom and wisdom in your life. Change for the better will begin.
It’s almost guaranteed.