Mindfulness: It ain't what you do it's the way that you do it
I've been interested in mindfulness for several years now and will be writing a book about it in the next year or so, building on the chapter that I wrote for the OU counselling module.
Mindfulness is the big idea in counselling and psychology at the moment. The 'gold standard' of counselling - cognitive-behavioural therapy - is turning to mindfulness as its 'third wave'. If you go to a mental health services it is likely that they will offer some kind of mindfulness training. Self help books for depression and anxiety are increasingly mindfulness focused.
One conclusion that I have come to is that there is no such thing as an inherently mindful or non-mindful activity. People (including myself at times) often have the idea that only certain activities could be mindful: like meditating, walking in the countryside, perhaps painting or other such tranquil pursuits. There is definitely a notion that certain activities are anti-mindful, including things like watching TV, commuting or social-networking. As with the idea that you are doing meditation wrong if you don't have a completely 'empty mind' I think this is a misconception which isn't helpful and which often leads people to beating themselves up that they aren't doing mindfulness properly (which really defeats the purpose!) Just as you can sit in meditation without being mindful at all, I think you can also be mindful as you are texting or surfing the internet.
Here I want to say what I think mindfulness is and why it is all about the way you approach activities, not the activity itself.
Mindfulness is an idea which originated in Buddhism over two thousand years ago. It involves being aware of the present moment in an accepting way. The theory of mindfulness is that much of human suffering involves our being out of the present moment (going over things from the past or planning for the future) in a way which tries to make things different, and which takes us away from any awareness of the here-and-now.
I wake up in the morning and immediately remember something I said in a meeting yesterday which I am worried sounded foolish. As I make coffee and eat breakfast I am going over and over how I could have done it differently and what people will be thinking of me. Walking to work I am planning for the day, concerned about how I'm going to fit everything in. I'm brought back with irritation as someone pushes past me on the tube. At work each task I undertake I am concerned with getting it out of the way so that I can get on with the next one. I keep refreshing my facebook and twitter because I'm not enjoying the work. I start worrying maybe this job is no good. If only I worked somewhere else, then I would be happy. I spend the journey home daydreaming about a different life but the distance between my life and that one brings me down. Once home I switch on the television and escape into my programmes.
The practice of mindfulness involves deliberately cultivating the opposite to this habitual mode of being. Instead of wishing that things were otherwise, we try to be with them as they are with acceptance. Instead of going off into past and future, we try to stay in the present. And instead of missing what is going on around us, and in our bodies, we deliberately bring awareness to those things.
That explains why the basic mindfulness practice is just sitting still and paying attention to your breath going in and out. That is a good way of practising being in the present moment and being aware of the most basic aspects of experience. Also, our breath connects us to the world in a fundamental way, and it is always there, so it is a useful focal point. But the idea that we should have an empty mind while we are practising mindfulness is a misconception because the whole point is to be present to whatever is here in the moment. Inevitably that will include sounds outside, thoughts and feelings bubbling up, an itch or pain in the body. Mindfulness is about embracing all these things in a kind of spacious awareness: not latching on to any of them, but equally not trying to ignore them either. And of course we will find ourselves following a thought process that is just too sticky to avoid, or forgetting our breath when the building noise outside annoys us. At those times we just notice what has happened with interest, and the impact it has on us, and gently bring ourselves back to the breath.
The real, and only, purpose of practising mindfulness (whether we do it in sitting meditation, or slow walking, yoga, painting or whatever works for us) is so that we can bring that way of being into the rest of our lives. Again, this is no easy matter, and berating ourselves every time we realise that we are not being mindful is really not the idea!
Thich Nhat Hanh, who wrote The Miracle of Mindfulness, suggests that everyday tasks like washing up and eating a tangerine are good ones to practice bringing mindfulness into our daily life. And that makes a lot of sense because, like breathing, they are relatively simple activities which makes them conducive to that kind of accepting awareness of the present.
All activities can be mindful
However, I think it is important to realise that all activities can be done mindfully, and that is really what mindfulness is aiming for (without imagining that that is really achievable all of the time, which is why every now and again it is useful to stop and breathe).
So what of those activities which seem the furthest removed from mindfulness? Isn't television always distraction and escapism? How could day-dreaming ever be present when it is all about the future or the past? And surely it isn't possible to be mindful as we dip between email, facebook and twitter, skipping randomly from one thing to another without enough time to take any of them in?
I disagree because in terms of experience I feel that there is a difference between times when I'm watching TV as a distraction and times when I'm engaged with it. Or times when I'm aimlessly wandering around the internet versus times when I'm connecting with this person and that idea in a way that is present and open to each one. There are times when I can be fully present to a day-dream.
I suspect that we do all need some time in our daily routine when we are still, or focused on a very simple task, in order to observe our usual habits and to cultivate a more mindful way of being. But I also think we can bring that into the rest of the kinds of lives we have today, noticing when we have strayed away from it and kindly reminding ourselves to come back.
I wake up in the morning and sit for a while, noticing how I am drawn to thinking about that meeting yesterday and gently bringing myself back to the breath. Making coffee I enjoy the smell as I open the tin, the feel of the warm mug in my hand, the soapy water as I wash up afterwards. Walking to work I think over what I have to do in the day and notice a knot of stress building. I gently bring myself back to the tube, sharing a smile with a fellow commuter as we do-si-do out of each others way. At work I take time to check in with a colleague, wryly noticing my desire to ask whether they thought I was foolish in the meeting yesterday. I think about which task I'm most in the mood for and enjoy devoting a couple of hours to that before moving on to less interesting things. In a break I enjoy the free-floating sense of dipping around facebook and twitter, and focus in on a couple of posts that interest me, enjoying the brief connection with someone on another continent who is thinking about such similar things to me today. Walking home from the station I enjoy a daydream about an imaginary party with all my favourite fictional characters. I can feel the evening air on my face and see the people walking past me at the same time as I'm sharing cocktails with Elizabeth Bennet and Hank Moody. Back home I make myself a meal, noticing the colours, smells and textures of the vegetables as I chop them. I close the curtains and watch an episode of my favourite show, enjoying the sleepy cosiness of the end of the day.
Though I come from an orthodox Muslim background, a lot of what you have written here resonates with me. I have been on a 'spiritual journey', since my teenage years. It has just dawned on me why I sometimes get so frustrated with people- I have been trying to live in the present for a long time and from reading your article- I would say that I am closer to it than I ever have been before.
I prayed 5 times a day (acknowleding the day passing?) in my early adulthood, I think that has 'trained' my mind to be able to focus on the here and now (or breathing as you call it). I suppose another word for 'mindfulness', could be 'consciousness.' That you are conscious of being alive and (try to) acknowledge that through your every action.
Very interesting post, thank you.
Thanks @Jameela Bi
Thanks so much @Jameela. I think you raise an excellent point that many religions have this kind of practice built in: rituals where people are encouraged to be still and present, for example during prayer or before a meal or during ceremonies.
One thing that can be lost when people aren't religious in any way is that kind of daily practice. I wonder if the current appeal of mindfulness in more secular societies is that it offers such practice rituals to those who don't have these kinds of traditions.
Thank-you for reading