What is mindfulness
The term ‘mindfulness’ is everywhere these days, which can be really confusing and to some, it can even be off-putting, assumed to be another fad that will come and go. Everyone’s heard of it, but how much understanding is there behind this word, who knows what it actually means, and frankly why should you care?
As a mindfulness teacher, it is my job to make sure I convey the answers to these questions as effectively as possible, which I’ve trained long and hard to do. In the context of an 8-week program, the meaning of this practice has time to unfold and reveal itself; participants realise for themselves how much depth there is to it, and the innumerable ways it can benefit them. But outside the context of the program, this is the question I dread being asked, and the deeper my experience of mindfulness gets, the harder I find it to distil it down into a concise answer, because mindfulness, by its very nature, is beyond language: It is an experience to be had.
However, I recognise that many people won’t ever have the experience unless someone can convey to them what the heck it is and why they should. So, a starting point is this very commonly used definition, from Jon Kabat-Zinn himself…
Mindfulness is the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, without judgement, in the service of self-understanding and wisdom.
That last bit isn’t always added but it’s important to know what benefit this awareness will bring as awareness alone isn’t something traditionally aspirational. What do we want to do with our newfound awareness? Perhaps self-understanding and wisdom are a bit too California for us Brits and that’s even more off-putting. So let me tell you in my own words what mindfulness is to me.
It is a way of helping myself. It is a practice (the sitting and meditating bit) which ultimately leads to a way of being that is much more conducive to a life free from struggle. It is not magic, so life doesn’t get “better” when you practice mindfulness – annoying people don’t cease to be annoying, the tube doesn’t get any less crowded, your deadlines won’t be pushed back, you will still love, grieve and love again. What’s different is your ability to flow with all of life with greater ease. The annoying person doesn’t impact you to the same degree, you look after yourself better in the face of ongoing pressures, you allow your broken heart to hurt until it heals. This ability is rooted in that awareness, as it’s that which enables us to see how things they really are, rather than how we so often see them, through a veil of subconscious judgements.
With less resistance to the lows, less clinging on to the highs, and more awareness of the small moments that make up our days but are so often missed, a richness and a gentleness take their place. The magnitude of life’s oscillations mellows from top of the world mountain peaks and depth of the earth troughs to gently undulating hills where lush meadows and bare earth can co-exist and where we might even enjoy a spot of hill-rolling on the downward slopes.