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What is Mindfulness? And Why You Should Give it a Try

By Matt


You've heard about mindfulness.

Maybe you've even given it a try.

You've sat down and meditated or listened to Headspace, yet you haven't managed to feel any benefit. That might be because you still don't understand what mindfulness is.

Although mindfulness has become popular in the last few years, there’s a lot of confusion about it. Many people think meditation and mindfulness are the same things. Others believe mindfulness means concentration.

Still others think it just means not being distracted when your dog demands your attention, barking at you when the postman arrives, or when the sound of your daughter playing next door threatens to ruin your day's work.

And if these misunderstandings weren't enough, many proponents of mindfulness falsely tout it as a panacea – something that will cure cancer and end all wars.

No wonder you're feeling confused.

The cacophony of voices and competing claims has left you feeling a little odd for not getting what all the fuss is about. "So what is mindfulness?” you wonder. “How exactly does a mindfulness Colouring book differ from an ordinary one?”

Allow me to explain.


A Powerful Ancient Tradition 

Mindfulness draws on over 2,500 years of Buddhist practice. At its heart is the simple idea that paying proper attention to what you do is better than walking around only semi-aware or on 'auto-pilot’.

Ancient Buddhist practitioners were aware that it was easy to get lost in thought. They were aware that it was easy for a person to be so engrossed in the contents of their mind that they didn't notice much else.

Their life easily passed before their eyes without them noticing it.

Not only that, but without careful attention people got caught up in worrisome or negative thoughts. These thoughts would spiral out of control and they’d soon find themselves tossed around mindlessly like a bottle slapped here and there on the waves.

It is this insight that the ancients passed down through to the modern day.

In the 1970’s Tich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, wrote of his experience washing the dishes in a Buddhist commune:

"While washing the dishes, one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes, one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes."

At first glance, that might seem a little silly; why put so much stress on a simple thing?

Yet washing the dishes contains two crucial lessons intimately tied with each other.

The first is your ability to be present with your experience – to have at least some attention on what you are doing and not be completely lost in thought. It's not that you mustn't be thinking— you may be enjoying a pleasant reverie, planning a walk in the park or a birthday surprise— but your whole attention is not on these current concerns or future plans.

You're not engrossed in the thoughts going through your mind.

Some, if not most, of your attention is also on those dishes. The soft, warm water on your hands, the pleasant aroma from the cleaning liquid, the sound of your swirling hand motions.

And you're grateful for the chance to experience this.

That's the second lesson from washing the dishes.

The fact that you're standing there washing these dishes is a fantastic reality. You're completely being yourself, conscious of your breath, conscious of your presence and conscious of your thoughts and actions. If you're distracted and only thinking of the cup of tea which awaits, you cannot appreciate this gift. You’re incapable of realising the miracle of life.

Astonishing, isn't it?

Such a simple idea and yet so powerful.

And that's all mindfulness is at its core – being aware of what you do.

Adding a Modern Commercial Twist

This idea spread from East to West when Buddhist monks like Tich Nhat Hanh emigrated to America. Slowly it percolated throughout Western society, spreading from Buddhist communes to medical centres treating stress and depression.

Then suddenly, in the 21st Century, mindfulness went mainstream. Millions of over-worked and harried Western citizens suddenly realised they were over-identifying with their thoughts and failing to appreciate rays of sunshine, the beauty of trees, or complexity of fungal networks.

But that's when the message began to get confused.

The newly converted zealously spread the word. With honourable intentions or not, hundreds of thousands jumped on the commercial bandwagon.

To help promote their services or products, the list of mindfulness’s benefits grew.

And since Buddhism encourages meditation to train yourself to be mindful, many people started to conflate the two.

Almost overnight, everyone talked about mindfulness, but few people talked about the simplicity and beauty of the idea – and its limits.


Keeping Mindfulness Simple

If you stay with the core idea of mindfulness being at least somewhat present – if not fully present – with what you are doing, you can begin to see things in a new light.

For example, while mindfulness is a central part of Buddhist practice, there are many other forms of mindful practice that come from Western traditions—religious meditation (or prayer) or philosophical contemplation are two.

Also, if mindfulness is paying careful attention to what you’re thinking, feeling, and doing, there are different ways to do this within Eastern traditions.

For example, Zen Koans are paradoxical phrases designed to break the spell of rationality and open you up to the mystery of life. They’re not about arriving at an answer, but to see for ourselves that our intellections can never provide us with a completely satisfying answer.

For example: “When both hands are clapped a sound is produced; listen to the sound of one hand clapping.” Or: “Question: What is Buddha? Answer: Three pounds of flax.”

Yoga is about paying careful attention to the body – mindfulness of the body.

Meditation is a chance to practice being mindful. While meditating, you try to focus your awareness on something like your breath or a mantra and notice when your mind wanders.

Like yoga or washing the dishes, meditation is simply one way to notice your mind wandering.

Meditation can help with mindfulness, but mindfulness is more than meditation.


Eat a Tangerine

In the opening chapter of "The Miracle of Mindfulness," after talking about his epiphany with the dishes, Tich Nhat Hanh narrates another story.

He and a friend were sitting under a tree sharing tangerines. His friend was talking about their future. Whenever they thought about a project that seemed attractive or inspiring, his friend got excited. He placed one section of the tangerine in his mouth after another as he waved his arms in elation about their inspiring future.

"You ought to eat the tangerine section you've already taken, " said Tich Nhat Hanh, and his friend was startled to realise what he was doing. He was eating the future. All his attention was there, and not the tangerine. He had no recollection of the taste or texture of the fruit segments he had just placed in his mouth.

Have you ever done the same thing: travelled somewhere without remembering how you got there or ate a meal without taking time to appreciate the flavours?

What can we learn from this story?

Well, realising that mindfulness is both a limited and straightforward idea stops you from being confused by competing claims.

To be mindful, all you need to do is slow down and pay attention to what is going on for you right now in the moment. You need to notice that the mind doesn't just think. It is also aware of the thoughts it has. You need to see that the mind doesn't just interpret your body's signal. It is also aware of the pains, moods, and emotions your body generates.

With this attention, you also can stop yourself from moving from one worrisome or negative thought to another and stop building to a crescendo of anxiety or self-criticism.

And with the understanding of mindfulness's limits, you'll realise that it alone won't solve your relationship troubles, cure your depression, or reduce your stress. It may ease some pain but won't fix it. It may make you concentrate a little better but is not the ultimate productivity tool.

Mindfulness is an adjunct to other self and relationship improvement strategies. It’s one tool in your armoury, not the full set.

What can we learn from this story?

Well, realising that mindfulness is both a limited and straightforward idea stops you from being confused by competing claims.

To be mindful, all you need to do is slow down and pay attention to what is going on for you right now in the moment. You need to notice that the mind doesn't just think. It is also aware of the thoughts it has. You need to see that the mind doesn't just interpret your body's signal. It is also aware of the pains, moods, and emotions your body generates.

With this attention, you also can stop yourself from moving from one worrisome or negative thought to another and stop building to a crescendo of anxiety or self-criticism.

And with the understanding of mindfulness's limits, you'll realise that it alone won't solve your relationship troubles, cure your depression, or reduce your stress. It may ease some pain but won't fix it. It may make you concentrate a little better but is not the ultimate productivity tool.

Mindfulness is an adjunct to other self and relationship improvement strategies. It’s one tool in your armoury, not the full set.

Do you want the benefits of Mindfulness for yourself?

I hope this post has given you a better understanding of what mindfulness is and how you can use it.

Are you ready to be more mindful?

What task can you bring your attention to?

The default position of the mind is to wander. Getting lost in thought is a natural state of being. But if you find yourself always mired in toxic or negative thoughts, it can lead to depression and anxiety.

If you need any assistance, reach out. As a trained mindfulness teacher, I can help guide you on your journey to be more mindful.

Don't let life pass you by because you were so busy thinking that you missed it.

Discover Mindfulness in Cambridge

Discover Mindfulness in Peterborough

About the author

Matt is a therapist who specialises in Stress, Anxiety and Anger Management as well as Relationships. He writes on a number of topics including Mindfulness and achieving Transcendence.

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