Meditation and mindfulness are buzzwords that have been circulating around the internet and social media over the past couple years and are sometimes used interchangeably. A common misconception is that the only way to practice mindfulness is meditation, which is simply not true! Mindfulness is a much broader concept, practise, and way-of-being than meditation. While meditation can be a way to practise mindfulness, many people struggle with integrating traditional meditation into their lives. Meditation is a difficult thing to do and is not suited for every person or every situation. Mindfulness, on the other hand, can be practised in various ways, and can be integrated into our days to help us cope with difficult situations and emotions, ground ourselves in moments of stress, and create pockets of peace. Mindfulness is a skill that can be strengthened and can help us be more present within our own lives.
What is Mindfulness and Why Is It Important?
Mindfulness is a complex concept because it can be applied and used in many ways, but broadly,
mindfulness is being aware of the present moment without judgement, rejection, or attachment.
When we do something “mindlessly”, we are usually not very present, un-focused, and we are usually doing more than one thing. I had a work colleague once describe mindfulness as “monotasking”: doing one thing, wholly, presently, and with awareness. We can bring this type of monotasking, present-focused awareness to either our external or internal worlds. We can be present with our external world by focusing and paying attention to various things around us (sounds, sensations, visual details, etc.), and we can be mindful of our internal world by bringing a non-judgemental awareness to our thoughts, emotions, intuition, and wisdom.
Mindfulness is important because it allows us to be more present in our own lives. It allows us to engage in important events fully, reduce reactivity to strong emotions and thoughts, cope with difficult emotions and sensations, and the list goes on. Research has also shown wonderful benefits of mindfulness as well, such as coping with mental health issues and stress reduction.
How Do We Practice Mindfulness?
While there are many definitions and ways to practise mindfulness, these are some key features of mindfulness:
- Present-Focused Awareness
Cultivating awareness of our current external and internal states can be done by both observing and describing your experience in that present moment.
Observing is just how it sounds. It is noticing and bringing awareness to our internal and external worlds without describing (because describing is a separate skill). Try it! It can be challenging to observe our thoughts, emotions, and sensory input without describing them. Try observing the clouds pass by in the sky without judgement, description, or without thinking about the last cloud. Stay present-focused on each cloud passing by.
Describing is assigning words and imagery to observation. It allows us to place meaning and understanding to our experience, in a non-judgemental way. For example, if we observed a sensation of warm water running over our hands, we might then describe the sensation as “warm”, “soothing”, “slippery”, “smooth”, “flowing”, etc.
- Beginner’s Mind & Curiosity
One key feature of mindfulness that makes it easier to stay more present-focused in our observation and description is the concept of “beginner’s mind.” It is the idea that we treat every new experience with openness, willingness, and without prior judgement. In other words, we treat every experience like it’s the first time we are experiencing that thing. So, if we were to take a sip of our coffee, doing so in a way like we have never tasted coffee before. Become curious about your experience of that coffee! The smells, the flavour, the colour, the temperature, etc. Practise curiosity by being incredibly detail oriented about each of those aspects of the coffee; pay attention to the smallest details in your coffee. In bringing beginner’s mind and curiosity to each experience, we are not only more mindful about our emotions, thoughts, and sensations, we are also open to other possible experiences we have not noticed before.
- Non-Judgement & Acceptance
Another key feature of mindfulness is non-judgment. This basically means that we do not reject, judge, or evaluate our emotions, thoughts, sensations, or experiences as neither good nor bad; we simply accept them as they are. For example, if we experience sadness, rather than judging our self for feeling sad (ex. “I shouldn’t be sad! This is dumb!!”) or rejecting the feeling of sadness (ex. “pushing down” or “away” sadness), we can accept our sadness and practise non-judgement (see “treating emotions like the weather” down below). Emotions, thoughts, sensations, and experiences don’t need to be good or bad “things,” they can just be “things” for us to observe and describe in a curious, non-judgmental way.
- Puppy Brain (or “Monkey Mind” – I like puppies better for this metaphor)
Mindfulness is not about being 100% present all the time. A big part of mindfulness is our ability to notice when our mind has wandered away, and bringing it back to the present moment, without judgment. We tend to become upset with ourselves and judge ourselves when we find our mind has wandered and is no longer focused on the present. But this is practising mindfulness too! Think of your brain like a puppy you are trying to train. You might ask the puppy to sit and stay, and the puppy might sit and stay for a couple of seconds, and then almost immediately get up and walk away because it got distracted by a toy or a new smell. We can’t get mad at the puppy, or the puppy will never learn! We need to gently bring the puppy back and ask it to sit and stay again. Over time, the puppy (our brain) will get better at sitting and staying (staying present) for longer.
We can practise mindfulness by bringing a present-focused, non-judgemental awareness into many areas of our lives, however there are some places where it is easy to practise mindfulness than others! Part II of this article will outline some of those areas and give techniques to integrate more mindfulness into our daily lives.