Some years ago I did a talk about Mindfulness at an event at Kings College London that was all about Happiness. You can see the talk here but if you're curious about mindfulness or just getting started with it, here are some of my insights based on some of the questions I was asked.
What does mindfulness actually mean???!!
Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the key figures responsible for bringing mindfulness to the West, has defined it as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally”. Mindfulness means to have moment-to-moment awareness of what’s happening without reacting to it. It sounds really simple but it’s perhaps one of the hardest things to practise as we’re so conditioned to be “doing”, constantly engaged in “stuff” as oppose to just “being” and allowing things to unfold without dictating or analysing them. With practise we start to see our thoughts as part of our experience rather than the entirety of our experience. This leads us to be less led by them and to see that they are not always reliable or reflective of reality, moreover that they can and often do create an added layer of pain or suffering to challenging situations.
What is your top tip for someone who wants to be more mindful?
To start by noticing when they’re not being mindful, e.g. you might think you’re watching your favourite film or listening to your favourite music but very often, our mind’s attention is engaged in something else entirely and we don’t even realise that we didn’t really see the film or hear the music. Thus we miss out on a significant chunk of that sense of enjoyment or pleasure from engaging in such things. When we start to notice how often we’re doing that, naturally we begin to pay more attention to what’s happening in the here and now and start to deeply experience life rather than just scratching the surface.
What is one of the main challenges that people need to overcome when becoming more mindful?
To understand that it’s a lifetime’s practise. It doesn’t matter how many books you read about mindfulness, if you’re not applying it practically in your life, you won’t experience any positive shifts. Don’t procrastinate, just start practising.
What are the top benefits of being more mindful?
There are so many! As I work in mental health I’ll start there. Living mindfully allows us to notice unhelpful thinking habits and therefore has the capacity to reduce excessive negative emotions. This is particularly helpful for managing stress and symptoms of anxiety and depression. When we can better manage our emotional health, this has all sorts of positive impacts on our physical health like reducing risk for cardiovascular disease which remains to be one of the leading causes of death globally. We also start to become aware of things that we’re doing that aren’t so helpful, e.g. eating bad food all the time, devoting no time to relaxation or things to keep us fit. Not only that, by living more mindfully, we get to experience the enjoyable and pleasurable things in life and our achievements more deeply.
How can someone best avoid getting too distracted by the rush and demands of everyday life?
Diarise time to take mindful breaks. If you schedule it in you’re much more likely to do it.
Are there any other activities you can recommend that complement mindfulness?
Any activity can be done mindfully whether it's running, eating lunch or even cleaning the dishes. One activity that specifically compliments mindfulness practise is yoga. When you couple yoga with mindfulness you have a powerful approach for managing wellbeing as you’re combining it with a practise that can regulate psychological and physical hyperarousal - too much energy in the body, a state associated with feelings of anger, panic and nervousness - and hypoarousal - too little energy in the body, a state associated with feelings of lethargy, numbness and low mood.
What happened in your life that made you realise mindfulness was central to wellbeing?
Over a period of years in my twenties I became incredibly anxious because I was always preoccupied with what I needed to do, whether it be later that day, tomorrow, next year, whenever, but I was never in the present moment. Being future focused created a lot of anxiety as I was constantly contemplating a cacophony of “what if’s” and my mind was perpetually turning over lists and preparations to try and plan for any and every eventuality - an impossible task which served only to keep me anxious and distracted from any form of respite. I began practising yoga which gradually taught me to become more present - whenever I was on the mat, I was practising mindfulness even though I didn’t know it. Some years later I came to learn about mindfulness and naturally it became part of my practise in an explicit way. I still have a tendency for planning ahead but I’m much more aware of when it’s spiralling into an “unhelpful amount of planning” territory.
Is there a particularly good place to start for total beginners?
I would advise starting with a course - have a teacher and a structured programme to follow. I’ve already mentioned, but it’s worth reiterating that mindfulness is simple in its definition yet perhaps one of the hardest things to do, so having as much guidance as possible is really integral in establishing a good understanding and practise of mindfulness.