Have you ever found yourself driving and arriving at your destination with no recollection of how you actually got there? Your body switched onto autopilot and controlled the steering wheel and pedals while your mind was totally absorbed in something else. Or maybe you only intended to eat one or two pieces of chocolate but the next thing you knew, you’d eaten the whole block. This lack of conscious thought can be referred to as a state of mindlessness.
Mindfulness, on the other hand, is a state of complete consciousness – being fully aware of all the information provided by the senses, such as the feel of cloth against the skin or the colour of the leaves in the street.
The practice of mindfulness involves deliberately and calmly observing whatever is happening around us in the present moment, without judgement.
This approach to self-awareness and understanding was developed by Buddhists thousands of years ago and found its way into many other cultures and traditions. It was ‘officially’ introduced to Western cultures in the 1970’s by Jon Kabat-Zinn who had studied yoga and Buddhism in depth. He developed the practice of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.
John Teasdale, Mark Williams and Zindel Seagal extended the concept in the 1990’s and developed Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy as a tool to help manage depression.
Today the practice has been clinically proven to benefit a wide range of conditions including:
Other benefits include:
While the basic practice of mindfulness is quite simple in theory, for some it can be challenging to master. The aim is to focus on the mind’s continuous chatter, noticing the thoughts and also any physical or emotional reactions to them while in a totally impartial state – rather like watching leaves flowing downstream. You might notice the colour and shape of the leaves but there is no attempt to change or manipulate them, just follow their movement and let them drift away.
You can also use mindfulness techniques to observe your reactions to conversations and events, particularly negative ones. In time you can learn to manage their effect on you.
An important skill in mindfulness is to learn to accept thoughts and feelings while resisting the urge to act upon them immediately. Some may be uncomfortable or unsettling but it is important to remain impartial. When we accept things as they are it does not mean we believe they will always be so. It just means that is how they are right now.
Mindfulness can be practiced through both mental and physical techniques – such as mediation, breathing exercises, Tai Chi and yoga. Learning how to incorporate mindfulness into your daily life can be as simple as deciding to pay more attention to the things around you. In particular, observing what messages each of the five senses are sending at any given time. You may find this difficult at first but, like all skills, it becomes easier with practice.
Today, many counsellors incorporate mindfulness it into their therapeutic practices. They can help participants learn to trust their feelings and develop an improved sense of self. If you have struggled to grasp the techniques of mindfulness on your own or if you have a condition or life-hurdle you want to overcome, then you could benefit substantially from seeking the help of a trained therapist.