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What actually is mindfulness?

Updated: Feb 23, 2023

In the 1980’s, Jon Kabat-Zinn, a prominent mental health doctor, became heavily involved in meditation. Inspired by the successful and positive results it has on mental health, he redesigned and westernized the practice, stripped it of the Buddhist connotations and created the version of mindfulness that is widely taught today. It boils down to a quality or state of conscious awareness of everything around you. ‘Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally. So let’s break that down a little.

What is paying attention in a particular way? It is exactly what it says it is: purposefully making a concerted effort to devotedly observe and witness the workings of whatever situation you face. You don’t need to understand it (although that might come as a pay-off); you just need to observe and accept.

Being in the present moment means that you are willing to accept whatever situation you may be observing, exactly how it is, which leaves little room for you to judge it, because it is what is happening and it needs to be accepted as such; there are no other logical options.

I’ve had issues trying to come to terms with this concept, I mean what if you’re suffering from an illness that is making your life unbearable? It’s all very well accepting it but that’s not going to make it go away, is it? And surely looking into the future and hoping it will get easier is going against the whole present moment principle? But that’s where I was wrong. Interestingly, in the context of physical pain, I read an incredibly insightful article indicating the direct link between pain and emotions. For example, if you have recently started to experience a bad upper back, there is a strong chance that this could very well be linked to feelings of emotional rejection and lack of love; so instead of nipping to your local chemist for a box of painkillers, try mindfully assessing the whole situation. Start by noticing and accepting your physical discomforts and then your emotional discomforts. The pains are both present, as are you in this very moment, so instead of lamenting your situation, the idea is to learn to accept it and then work on loving yourself enough to ease the woes, correspondingly easing the physical pain.

Mindfulness isn’t always easy, and this is where you need to put faith into it. By accepting the negative situation, you are leaving little room for your body to fight against it, because it has nothing to fight (you’ve accepted it, remember?). You have devoted yourself to the present moment and by doing that, you’ve had the freedom to realize that the exact moment you are currently living through will pass, with better experiences around the corner. Through your forthright acceptance of the situation, and with nothing to fight against, you are leaving little room for negativity to flourish and it will slowly start to ease its grip on you.

Having this attitude and mindfully carrying out your life in this way also leaves little room for situations to overcome you. I get that it’s near on impossible to be mindfully present 100% of the time but, as I mentioned in an earlier post, the more you practice it, the easier it becomes and the more likely you are to persevere with it.

If you find it hard to accept whatever situation is troubling you, try to mindfully acknowledge your feelings associated with it and note down the thoughts that accompany it. For example, ‘I am feeling frustrated and out of control’. By noting it down you are halfway to accepting it. Now try to sense where in your body you notice a physical sensation of whatever it is you are finding hard to accept and be as curious as possible in questioning and observing its presence within you. This will help you to understand it properly in order to accept it.

I have found it easier to be mindful of situations if you change them around a little in order to concentrate more on it to get it right or to notice the difference, which is exactly what mindfulness is. Brush your teeth with the opposite hand that you normally use, for example, or stand on one foot when you’re having a shower (just don’t slip over and then sue me). Maybe take a different route to work, or wear some crazy underwear (secret mindfulness). Try talking to strangers, listening to different music and watching different films – while all the time observing and accepting things in the present moment. You may not like the music you’ve just listened to– I’m not asking you to – but by accepting it for what it is you’re immediately taking a mindful step in the right direction.

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