Post No.: 0088
Mindfulness is about an awareness of the present – the here and now – in an open, kind and non-judgemental way. Mindfulness means intentionally maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and surrounding environment. It also means acceptance – accepting all the above without judgement.
Being in the present means you don’t ruminate on the past or preoccupy your mind with the potential future that you forget what’s around you right now. It’s the opposite of a wandering mind that is focused on anything but the here and now. Although thinking about the past, or in particular the future, has many advantages (e.g. for assessing risks, planning, creativity, imagination, fond memories) – mind-wandering tends to make us less happy because we mainly wander more towards negative or worrisome thoughts, and even if we do think about neutral or pleasant past or future thoughts, it does no better for our furry well-being than being mentally in the present.
Unhappy people tend to ruminate (e.g. on regrets, the arguments we had with others, our losses), and rumination tends to lead to negative memories, interpretations, hypotheses or predictions. Mind-wandering tends to also involve too much negative thinking that is about ‘me, me, me’ (e.g. thinking ‘what are other people thinking about me?’, ‘I wish I could turn back time’, ‘what will be my legacy?’, ‘I’m going to fail’, ‘they’re going to let me down’, ‘I’m not going to get what I want’) and these kinds of thoughts are what we need to silence or at least vastly reduce by being more mentally in the present.
Even during some of the least enjoyable activities (e.g. commuting) – being mentally in the present improves our happiness and well-being. We are the central characters of our own stories and so we can get caught up in self-centredness, but awareness doesn’t have a centre or a boundary. Experiencing and appreciating are also different to knowing – a lot of meditation is about recognising and appreciating what we can be grateful for (e.g. being alive right here, right now), and living our lives moment-by-moment as if each moment mattered and should not be taken for granted. Woof!
If we don’t practice (focused, present-attention) meditation, our default habit is likely to mind-wander – practicing mindfulness mediation helps us to firstly realise that our fluffy minds are wandering away from our breathing (or heart-rate or some other physiological sensation, or on gratitude, loving-kindness, etc.) whenever this happens, and over time helps us to return our concentration back to the present quickly and effortlessly. With practice, wandering thoughts will stick less.
‘Stimulus-independent thought’ is any thought that is not related to one’s immediate surrounding environment. Now not all mind-wandering is bad of course – it’s just that if one does it too much and gets stuck on negative thoughts like a stuck record then it gets one nowhere. Like everything else to do with achieving good health, it’s about context and balance rather than doing too much or too little of something; and many mental health problems are indeed cases of doing something that is otherwise normal but too much (just like e.g. eating too many calories or a blood sugar level that is too high when it comes to physical health problems).
Mindfulness meditation can, if practiced regularly, improve our concentration levels or attention spans, working memories and fluid intelligence (the ability to solve new problems one has never faced before. Crystallised intelligence is conversely the ability to use learnt knowledge and past experiences to solve problems one has already faced before). Note that if your mind starts to drift into conjuring up fantasies or rewritten (i.e. false) memories then that’s not (successful) mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness is about focusing on the present reality, not wishful fantasies.
If you stress repeatedly over an upcoming event or mentally relive a negative past experience again and again, you’ll be able to quickly and easily ‘drop’ such thoughts as you become more experienced at mindfulness meditation – hence mindfulness meditation is a potentially important exercise in the toolkit for helping treat depression, anxiety, PTSD or even sexual dysfunction. Not being mindful and in the present as you lie in bed and try to get to sleep (e.g. because of too much thinking about the past or future, regrets or ‘what ifs’, what you failed to do today or what you must do tomorrow, or even worrying about not being able to sleep and the amount of time you have left in order to get enough sleep before you must get up itself) is a cause for insomnia. Being pre-occupied with the past or worried about the future may also make you feel less open and inquisitive towards new experiences too.
Stopping our minds wandering is not easy though – so don’t be harsh on yourself if you do find yourself doing it; don’t be judgemental about being non-judgemental! If you ever notice yourself wandering then that’s okay – just notice it happening then softly dissolve your attention back to the present. There is no correct or incorrect way to feel in any given moment so ditch any self-criticism. You’ll get better at it with consistent and regular practice.
Please take the next few minutes or so with me to get into a comfortable position, to feel each breath we take, listen to the sounds in our surroundings, sense the temperature of the environment on our skin, the smells and the sights, the broad vistas as well as the details, present around us where we are. You are not just a cog in a relentless machine that doesn’t allow you to pause for a moment – so pause for a moment, breathe, and notice that you are alive…