When we first see or hear something, there is a fleeting instant of pure awareness just before we conceptualize or ‘think’ about the thing – before we identify it. That moment is known as ‘mindfulness’.
It is the mental equivalent of what we see with our peripheral vision, as opposed to the hard focus of our normal or central vision.
A common malady of our fast-paced world is that we are so intent on understanding things that the moment of mindfulness is passed over.
Rather than always having to evaluate our cognitive and emotional experiences, mindfulness teaches us simply to notice them.
This increases our openness to experiences and reduces our tendency to label some experiences negatively.
According to mindfulness expert and clinical psychologist Dr Richard Chambers, mindfulness is being engaged and present in each moment of our lives.
It is the ability of our mind to pay deliberate attention, in a particular way, to the present moment, and to do so in a non-judgmental way.
The concept of mindfulness has its origins in many cultural and philosophical traditions, which recognized that these moments of unfocused awareness contain a very deep kind of knowing.
In modern psychological practice, mindfulness techniques are used as a powerful tool to reduce stress levels and heal psyches.
It is important to distinguish ‘mindful’ meditation from ‘concentration’ meditation.
Concentration meditation entails restricting the focus of our attention to a single stimulus, such as a word, object or thought. If our attention wanders, it is redirected back to that anchor. No attention is paid to the nature of the distraction.
In contrast, mindfulness meditation involves observation of constantly changing internal and external stimuli as they arise. Rather than shutting out the world, mindfulness meditation entails being receptive to any and all stimulation that may arise.
Mindfulness training can help us gain greater awareness of many aspects of our personal beings, rather than simply paying attention to those that seem most emotionally pressing.
Enhanced awareness leads to an increased sense of mastery over mental processes.
This improves our mood and lowers the likelihood that we will brood on our past failures, which can lead to loss of confidence in our health-related choices.
Mindfulness also increases innovation, self-esteem, productivity and attention span, promotes weight loss, and reduces stress, burnout and pain.
How to be more mindful
We can cultivate mindfulness using a variety of techniques, including:
- Yoga – You can take a yoga class, or there are even apps you can download to practise at your convenience
- Mindful walking – Take a walk around your neighborhood or hop on the treadmill and pay attention to the experience of walking
- Mindful breathing – This is simply focusing on your own inhalation and exhalation, which is a great way to decrease stress and anxiety
- Listening to music (music therapy)
- Spending time in nature (eco-therapy)
A range of mindfulness apps are also available to download for iOS and Android.