Mindfulness has been a buzzword for a few years now. But what is mindfulness, what’s its relationship to meditation and how can we use it to make our lives better?

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a state of awareness that involves being totally present while we carry out any particular activity. Perhaps you think you do this all the time, but take a moment to reflect; the last time you were tucking into something great to eat, how much attention did you pay to the experience? Were you thinking about other experiences from earlier in your day or perhaps allowing yourself to contemplate the future?

It’s human nature to think about the past and future, to reflect on our lives and appraise how things have gone, and to dream about where we want to be. That said, never have people multi-tasked as much as they do in today’s 100mph, time-poor world. We are living in a virtual world, listening to downloaded music or podcasts while they scroll through social media feeds, chat to numerous people using messenger apps and take a stroll on the treadmill.

Is mindfulness something that you can get better at?

Of course, you can practice mindfulness any time at all. Get yourself an apple or something similar that you like. Once you’re sitting comfortably, take a bite out of that apple, but when you do, make sure you pay attention to every detail within the experience.

Feel the pressure as your teeth bite down on the apple’s surface and sense the moment when the skin is broken; enjoy the fizzing sensation as the juices flood your mouth with the apple’s flavour. Did you feel your saliva response kicking in?

When you practice a technique like this, you are learning to pay more attention to the moment. That is incredibly mentally healthy on its own because every moment that you are focusing on the now, you are not getting sucked in to worry, stress, working things out, deadlines, emotions and other issues. Experience is the stuff of life. Why miss it by dwelling on the past or worrying about the future?

Catch an emotion before it takes over

In theory at least, by practising mindfulness while we walk, drive, eat our meals or take a walk in the park, we can increase our general level of awareness while developing a greater appreciation of life. If we are mindful of how we interact with the world around us, particularly the people we engage with, then we should be able to witness emotions as they rise rather than falling victim to them.

  • “This situation is making me feel tense. Perhaps I should remove myself.”
  • “Why I am feeling anxious about that meeting?”

Being mindful should make us more aware of ourselves and give us a more objective perspective as a witness to what’s going on within and without.

What’s meditation and why do I need it?

Mindfulness is a powerful tool for learning how to stay anchored to the present. Children, in particular, are incredibly good at allowing themselves to be totally absorbed by the present moment. So it’s hardly surprising that we learn at least one language within the first four years of our lives, on top of learning how to walk, how to talk and a multitude of other splendid feats.

But as we get older and our sense of identity gets stronger while our brains become bigger and more complex, thinking becomes a deeply ingrained habit. By the time we are adults, there are a million things going on in the mind at any one time. Thinking is a pretty difficult habit to break.

If mindfulness is the practice of staying totally present to an experience, then meditation is the practice of being mindful of the mind. Meditation is what happens when we stop moving, stop looking around and move our attention inwards. That’s why so many people find it incredibly difficult.

Watching the mind

Watching the mind is a challenge to a lot of people. That’s why guided meditation apps are so popular. Listening to the sound of waves gently brushing against the shore, while flutes play dreamy melodies and a relaxing voice tells us everything is fantastic and we are going to be tomorrow’s heroes, is far easier than actually facing the demons of our own minds.

People who have tried meditation but not enjoyed it will often say things such as:

  • “I couldn’t switch off my mind.”
  • “I couldn’t stop thinking.”
  • “I couldn’t get my mind to be still.”

There is an expectation that somehow meditation is supposed to be pleasant, and some people might even believe they will get some kind of enlightening moment where suddenly they are happy all day long for the rest of their lives. This kind of mentality misses the point.

Let the mind do what it wants

Once we learn to sit still, let go, close our eyes and face whatever is going on in our heads, we come to realise that we are not the thoughts, not the memories, and not the emotions that arise. That’s the point.

Stillness does not come from stopping the mind from doing its thing, although seasoned meditators will experience seemingly eternal moments where there is absolutely nothing going on. Stillness comes from residing in the eye of the storm, by not allowing the whirlwind of mental phenomena to drag us round in circles. Stillness comes with surrender and acceptance.

Now, that kind of understanding is priceless, because once we learn to accept whatever is going on inside our heads as well as outside, a transformation takes place. So, “This situation is making me feel tense. Perhaps I should remove myself,” becomes “There is a feeling of tension. It’s not a problem. It will pass.” An awareness of anger does not have to lead to an angry response.

Meditation makes us more mindful

Practising meditation leads to more mindful living. Over time, it changes our default mode of awareness. Instead of having to consciously develop a habit of being mindful, the state is more likely to arise by itself if we are practising meditation. Furthermore, meditation gives us greater understanding of ourselves.

Meditation packs a really powerful punch. Many common mental health issues arise from our tendency to look to the past or the future. Rumination or replaying past events, usually negative experiences, can over time lead to anxiety and depression. While worry comes from allowing the mind to imagine negative experiences that could happen in the future.

By training people to become more present and more aware of how their minds tick, meditation promotes better resilience, discourages rumination, enhances concentration and generally leads to a mindset which is less fearful, more open-minded and capable of creative thinking. The mind is unlocked, but there is something even more special about the meditative state.

Meditation can help you to rewire your thinking

The state of meditation is almost identical to the hypnotic state. Hypnosis is a technique that allows someone to bypass another person’s (or their own) logical mind – their beliefs, expectations and world view – and drop suggestions directly into the subconscious mind.

While someone is meditating, their metaphorical clutch is being pushed down and their awareness is being disengaged from all the stuff whirling around in their heads. They are experiencing life from a very deep state of awareness. Anything that they say or think while in this state will also bypass any resistance from the logical mind.

Whereas a hypnotherapist will carefully construct hypnotic suggestions, in the same way we can construct our own affirmations and by saying these words out loud or using our inner voice while we are in a meditative state, they will be lodged deep in our subconscious. Whatever ideas we plant there can affect our default thinking; how we naturally feel when we encounter new situations and experiences.

Meditation is the silver bullet

To bring it all together, it’s well worth having a go at practising mindfulness if you haven’t before. But by practising meditation, you go straight to the source, gaining a greater understanding of yourself and how you think, while making it more likely that you be more mindful in everyday life.

Psychologists have known that self-talk, or “self-efficacy” as they call it, makes a huge difference to our outcomes. As Henry Ford famously said, “Whether you believe you can or you can’t, you’re always right.” So, if you are not in the habit of telling yourself how good you are, now’s the time to start, but by learning how to use the right affirmations while you’re meditating, you will greatly increase the effectiveness of your efforts.