As I sit down to write this article, I’m distracted by my phone beeping, informing me of a new text message; my actions are whirring around my brain, so I write them down and give some thought to those that I need to do today. My computer also helpfully notifies me that a new email has arrived. I put on a soundtrack to try and get into the creative flow. Then I stop. It dawns on me that this is what most of us do all the time. We multitask. Yet multitasking is the opposite of mindfulness.
So, right now, let’s pause and take a conscious breath. Breathe in, hold that breath and then exhale. How do you feel?
The breath is a powerful tool, and one we seldom give any conscious thought to. We always have the ability to breathe in and out. That ability can bring us back to the present moment, no matter what is going on throughout our day.
How are you breathing right now? Are your breaths slow, fast, irregular? Do you find yourself struggling for breath, sighing often? Explore your breathing with curiosity and open questioning. Pay attention. Follow the breath in and out, and notice what you experience.
This is mindfulness – the practice of present-moment awareness. A practice that can be carried out formally, through meditation (there are many guided meditations available), or informally, in the rest of our lives, through paying attention, without judgement, to the here and now.
Mindfulness has its roots in religious practice. There’s a Zen saying that goes, ‘when you drink, just drink, when you walk, just walk’. In fact, no matter what we do as a daily practice, we can become mindful whilst doing it. When doing the dishes (or any mundane task), do the dishes. According to family therapist Virginia Satir, there are more than 250 different ways to wash dishes, depending on who is washing and the ingredients used! Doing such a task, no matter how you do it, opens up a great opportunity to be mindful in the moment, and with what you are doing. Feel the sensation of water and dish soap and pay attention to the immediacy of your body at the sink. As we do this, we get to develop a sense of connection with everyday tasks. It makes it what it is. We don’t add to the experience by making it something it isn’t. Remember, there is no right or wrong way to practice mindfulness, there is only your way of exploring and engaging in it.
The practice of mindfulness helps us to experience life – moment to moment – rather than just getting through it. Because getting through the day is what most of us do. “I’m glad it’s Friday”, we say. So often are we stuck in the movie of our minds, distracted by thoughts, memories, plans, regrets and judgements. We distract ourselves with social media. We are ‘plugged in’ to technology. We have lost the ability to simply be; to enjoy each moment.
As we practice mindfulness, we can weaken the hold that thoughts, ruminations, regrets and judgments can have on the mind. As we unhook from those unhealthy patterns of thinking, we achieve peace. When we give ourselves a break from stress/distress and enter a state of calm, we can simply enjoy being alive. We come back into our body and, in doing so, we can relate differently to difficult states of mind. We enter a state of acceptance, learning to treat ourselves with kindness.
“When we are mindful, our understanding of what is going on deepens, and we begin to be filled with acceptance, joy, peace and love.”
– Thich Nhat Hanh.
Isn’t this all just about paying more attention?
There is, in fact, a distinction between mindfulness and attention. Mindfulness includes a sense of compassion and invites childlike curiosity. We get to experience the wondrous qualities of snowflakes in the sky, or a bowl of soup. We remember the moments that connect us to life. Whilst mindfulness is about being aware, or bringing attention to this moment in time, we do so with intent and without judgement.
Is it worth it?
Well, practitioners would argue that mindfulness brings mental, physical and spiritual benefits. It releases us from mental suffering, moment by moment, and helps bring about:
So how much does mindfulness really help in improving the quality of our decision making?
Since 2004, mindfulness has been recommended by the Department of Health (DoH) and the National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) as a form of therapy. Yet only in the past 5 years or so has mindfulness been incorporated into negotiation techniques and leadership manuals – areas where strong decisions are required. There’s growing evidence that mindfulness can assist in all stages of decision making:
So why aren’t we all practicing mindfulness?
The difficulty is not in finding the time for mindfulness. The difficulty is in doing the work: slowing down, being present and living now. Seems like the results are worth the effort, so how about you give mindfulness a try today? How’s that for unplugging?