My definition of mindfulness is ‘non-judgmental acceptance of the here and now’; it’s a word coined to describe living for the moment in the moment, no matter how bad that moment is. That’s because what we do at any one moment in time has an effect on future moments, but what we did in the past cannot be changed. So mindfulness helps us make the right decision by concentrating and focussing on each moment as it happens without distractions.
The by-product of focussing on the task in hand to make appropriate decisions is that:
- Productivity is improved – multi-tasking does not get optimum results!
- There is increased understanding of self and the way you think so decision-making improves.
- There is greater understanding of why people react to you and your behaviours in the way that they do (emotional intelligence).
- It helps create new neural pathways in the brain which over-ride previous (bad) habits.
- It helps prevent negative, unwarranted thought-patterns and the ensuing emotional turmoil of triggering the amygdalae and the stress response.
- You appear calmer and more poised as you stop reacting automatically and emotionally and deal with barriers and problems skilfully.
Why Mindfulness Works
The human brain is designed to respond to situations to keep us from harm or to keep us alive. This basic need can and does over-ride the 40% – 60% of the brain which is involved in higher learning – decision-making, awareness, emotion-regulation, attention and focus, planning, appraisal and self-perspective. Mindfulness prevents our automatic, pre-programmed, primitive, subconscious response to a situation and replaces it with voluntary, concentrated reasoning. Mindfulness requires effort and practice! Mindfulness is not learnt in a day! Mindfulness is transformative!
In the same way as mindfulness is not meditation and relaxation, it is also not just about positive thinking. A by-product of mindfulness practice may be that you feel more relaxed, or that you think more positively, but what mindfulness does is enable us to approach or re-examine difficult situations or circumstances by seeing clearly, openly and non-judgmentally what is going on in the present moment i.e. what is happening as it is happening without analysis.
Mindfulness Is Good
If you have ever listened to a relaxation or hypnotherapy CD or been to see a Clinical Hypnotherapist or practiced meditation, you will know how difficult it can be to allow your thoughts to just disappear from your mind. That’s because we all have minds full of stuff. But whereas meditation and relaxation are designed to remove all thought and stress from the mind and body, mindfulness is designed to remove thoughts and feelings not associated with the undertaking in hand so that we can pay attention to it to avoid mistakes and improve performance – as in ‘being mindful’
Mindfulness Exercise (1)
So how can you learn to be mindful? A good place to start is with basic meditation/relaxation techniques but whereas meditation is all about looking inwards, Mindfulness is more expansive and performance-enhancing. However, in the same way as meditation and relaxation slow the brain and reduce stress hormone release, so, too, does mindfulness as the stress response is removed.
Sit upright in a chair with your feet firmly on the floor in a reasonably relaxed position and either allow your eyes to close or just gaze down towards your feet.
Take a deep breath in and as you do so notice the air as it enters your nostrils, notice whether it is cool and whether it is scented. Do not allow yourself to decide whether you like the smell or not, just accept that the smell is there, or not. As you breathe out, notice the warm air as it leaves your body and the sensation of the air as it passes your nasal passages. Take 2 more deep breaths in and out focussing on the air as it passes through your nostrils.
As you continue to breathe in and out, notice any sounds in the room and outside of the room. Do not try to analyse these sounds, where they come from or what is making them, just accept they are there. Focus on these sounds for a couple of minutes.
Notice how your body feels as it is supported by the chair, how your feet feel resting on the floor. Maybe your hands feel cold, maybe they feel warm – gently check them out. Maybe your feet are tingling inside your shoes. Just explore your body and how it feels.
If your mind wanders, turn your attention back to your breathing. Accept thoughts as part of you and your thinking, a mental process which creates ideas, observations and concepts. Just allow them to float away as you focus on your breaths. Notice how your chest rises and falls as you breathe in and out. Just imagine you are a casual observer watching the circle of breath. If your mind wanders again, just keep bringing it back to your breathing, using your breath as an anchor for as long as you have the time…
Take 3 more deep breaths before you open your eyes/raise your gaze and reflect on how alive you feel.
All-in-all, this exercise should take a minimum of 3 minutes, up to 15minutes if you have the time. The act of recognising that your mind has strayed and that you can bring it back to the task is what is being practiced.
Mindfulness Exercise (2)
Mindfulness enables you to become progressively more aware of your thoughts, feelings, attitudes and habits i.e. how your mind and body work so that you can effect positive change. So this exercise involves doing something which we all do several times a day, but usually on autopilot – eating! Choose something small which you enjoy eating, such as a piece of chocolate, or a sultana or square of bread. If you choose a piece of fruit or a vegetable, remove the pips and skin if they are not edible. You could really challenge yourself by choosing something you don’t enjoy.
Find a quiet place and hold the item in your fingers. Notice the weight – is it heavy or light? Spend a few seconds weighing up the item. Now look at it. Notice the colour(s), the texture, the way the light is reflected or refracted off it, the size and the shape. Really concentrate on looking at it; get to know it really well. Could you draw it if asked to?
Now touch it. Is it hard or soft, rough or smooth? If you put it to your lips, how does it feel? Does it feel different on your lips to when in your fingers?
Now smell it. How does it smell, if at all? Can you describe the aroma? Is it a strong smell? Or is it more like a scent?
Put the food in your mouth and just let it sit on your tongue. Notice how it feels, any sensations on your tongue, any desire to bite into it.
So you can now chew it slowly and carefully, noticing changes in texture, taste and sensations. Think about the action of chewing on the food, how your salivary glands are responding, how your jaw moves and your teeth crush and tear the food.
When you swallow, feel the food going down into your oesophagus. Notice the sensations of the food travelling down. Are there any lingering sensations or flavours in your mouth and throat? How do your lips feel? What are you thinking?
It’s now time to reflect on this activity as consciously and conscientiously as you carried out the activity itself. Have you ever paid so much attention to something you were doing? Has this experience changed the way you think about eating and food? Has your ability to concentrate so intently on anything amazed you? Did anything else surprise you?
Because mindfulness relates to our actions, thoughts, emotions and states of mind at any one time, it removes perception and replaces it with the reality of the moment. The more you practice these two exercises, the more control you will gain over your thoughts and feelings and the sooner you will start to realise how much energy you used to expend by allowing your thoughts to wander, become erratic and negative and how stressful that was. And how much trouble making the same response to the same stimuli sometimes got you into!
Applications of Mindfulness
By recognising that thoughts are just mental processes you can prevent inappropriate, unconscious, habitual responses to those thoughts and make a conscious decision as to what your response should be.
The old saying ‘The past is history, the future is a mystery but today is a gift, which is why it’s called the present’ is Mindfulness in a nutshell! Every action, event and occurrence can benefit from mindfulness because it gives you choice – choice to move on from events in the past and choice to make changes for the future. When our body is on auto-pilot, there is no choice; when being mindful, there is!
Mindfulness for Weight Control
So, for example, you have decided you want to lose weight. If you are mindful about what you put in your mouth, then you will:
- weigh up whether the food meets your nutritional needs
- notice your emotions and why you are eating
- experience the food, its texture and taste and how your tummy feels in a direct, experiential manner (so you eat less because you recognise those full signals quicker)
- ignore protestations from others to ‘go on, just have one more’- it’s your body that is being abused, not theirs!
- rationalise cravings for what they are – just thoughts
Using mindfulness, you are more likely to lose weight than on a traditional ‘diet’ and therefore become your ideal shape and size for you.
Mindfulness for Business
One of the most exciting applications, and one which is being researched extensively, is the practice of Mindfulness in business. Here are some of the benefits of becoming a Mindful organisation.
- It increases concentration and the ability to learn so more work gets done of a higher standard
- It allows non-judgmental open-mindedness and open communication so team dynamics and personal relationships improve
- It improves communications with and understanding of customers so customer service improves
- It is a practical way of dispensing with strong emotions and feelings so the atmosphere in the work-place becomes calmer and more measured
- It enables people to function better under pressure, improves resilience and reduces sickness absence
- It helps remove self-limiting beliefs and allows the letting go of the past so the business can move forward.
- It changes mind-sets allowing growth and development
These are all barriers to progress commonly identified by managers and business owners in many kinds of organisation, yet Mindfulness is so much more than a business tool; it can literally change your life.
Alidina, S. (2011) Relaxation for Dummies Wiley
Alidina, S. and Adams J. (2014) Mindfulness at Work for Dummies Wiley
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2006) Mindfulness for Beginners Sounds True Inc.