What does ‘mindful’ mean?
The answer is simple. ‘Mindful’ may be a new buzz word, but all is actually means is focusing your attention, on purpose, on things that are happening in the present moment (rather than being on ‘automatic pilot’ and letting your mind ‘wander’). For example, giving a child your full attention, or noticing what the warm sunshine feels like on your skin, or seeing how the breeze gently turns the different leaves on a tree.
What do I mean by automatic pilot? Well, how many of you have driven to work, or been on a train journey or bus journey and not really noticed things during the journey because you were following your thoughts? How many of you have reached your destination and realised that only part of your attention was on the actual journey?
When we do that, we are not focusing our attention on the present moment. We don’t really notice the trees that we are walking by or the bird that just soared above us, but rather we are following ‘mind chatter’. These aren’t practical thoughts, about plans for a meeting that we are about to attend, but random thoughts that pop into our head. When that happens, rather than being ‘mindful’ we are being ‘mindless’. We are following random jumbled thoughts.
Does that matter? The answer is yes, for several reasons, and these include:
- We are much less likely to make the decisions that are best for us.
- We are less joyful, as ‘mind chatter’ is usually negative.
- We are likely to be less healthy – both physically and mentally.
Well documented research in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology proves that mindfulness is possibly one of the best things that we can do for our health and wellbeing. One of the things that mindfulness practice (taking time each day to focus your attention, on purpose, on things of your choice) does, is to change the structure of the brain, so that you are much better at making the decisions that are best for you. It also enables us to untangle the jumble of thoughts that we follow mindlessly, so that we are able to follow the ones that we want to.
When you start, you can be in a mindful state of being, in that moment; but, as you practice each day, you can develop a mindful trait of being, which is a repeated and habitual way of being, over time, and in different circumstances.
So how can I be mindful?
Here are some things you can try, but there are many ways of practicing mindfulness. Remember, it just means focusing your attention on specific things in the present moment. As you progress, you can also be mindful about memories of the past and plans for the future, as long as you do so with alertness, but focus on the present moment for now.
- You can start by noticing your breath. Feel the sensations of it going in and out of your nostrils. Feel your diaphragm falling and rising as your chest expands. Do this mindfully, focusing your attention on it. If mind chatter kicks in, that is normal and it is OK. Just don’t follow one thought to another. Imagine that each thought is like a person walking by. They appear and then they go.
- Meditation is a form of mindfulness practise, as is yoga or Tai Chi. If you are able to, a relaxing meditation is one where you close your eyes and imagine that you are at a beach. You see the gentle waves coming in to the shore and out. As you breathe in, the waves gently come towards the sand, and as you breathe out the waves recede. Then feel the warm sunshine on your skin. Feel your body relax. Notice a bird soaring above the beach and ocean, gently gliding. Then you are the bird. You don’t need to flap your wings, you can just glide in the warm air, gently adjusting your wings as you glide above the beach. Come back to your body and feel the warmth of the sunshine on your skin. Breathe a few slow breaths, relaxing in this warmth. Then, when you are ready, gently move your fingers and toes, open your eyes and take a slightly bigger breath. Smile.
- A third thing you can try is to mindfully do a whole body scan. Close your eyes and focus your attention on the top of your head, gradually coming down to notice your whole head. Move down to the neck, then shoulders and chest. Move your attention to your upper back, releasing any tension there, and then both arms, right down to your fingertips. Bring your attention to your tummy and hips, lower back, and then down both legs to the end of your toes. If you would like to, you can imagine your body filling with a healing light. When you are ready, you can gently wiggle your fingers and toes and open your eyes. If you want to, you can stretch your body and then fully relax. This is a useful mindfulness exercise to do just before you go to sleep as it aids relaxation.