What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness invites us to be receptive to what is happening in this present moment. Mindfulness is often described as ‘deliberately paying attention to this very moment without passing judgment or expectation’ (adapted from Jon Kabat Zinn). So you may think that sounds simple – pay attention to this very moment. Simple yes, easy no!
You see our minds aren’t used to paying attention to this very moment on a consistent basis. Sure we can pay attention when we need to like watching a movie or playing a game, but for most of the time we are lost in thinking and often we don’t even realise it.
We can be busy in our heads planning our next meeting or going over some conversation or argument we had yesterday, last week, maybe even from five years ago! Perhaps even while reading this you have been thinking about the emails you need to write, or rehearsing for the next important conversation you want to have with someone who is difficult or challenging.
You may have been caught up in blaming yourself for something you haven’t done or need to do. Perhaps you have been thinking that you won’t be able to do something in the future.
Thinking is in our evolution
There is a reason for all this thinking and it is mostly due to our evolution. You see our minds have always needed to think to keep us safe. As we developed in to human beings, we didn’t have armour to protect us or poison to strike out with, yet we needed to keep safe from other animals.
Instead we had our brains, in particular our pre-frontal cortex that developed and separated us from the animal kingdom. The pre-frontal cortex is involved in higher ordered thinking and executive functioning for making decisions. It is involved in understanding complex constructs and processes like how governments and economies work etc. As a species we have relied on our high functioning minds to keep us safe, safe from the wolves and other threats. We needed to develop the ability to reflect on the past (where was the danger last time? What did we do to stay safe?), to assess current events (am I in danger now?), and to make plans for the future (where will I be safe and for how long?).
However, there aren’t any real wolves out to get us now. Today we have different ‘wolves’ to think about. Modern day wolves are the worrying about future events, conversations, fights or arguments. We think about how we will cope in the future – “what if it doesn’t get better? What if things don’t work out for the best?” We ruminate, remember, reminisce; we worry, we plan, we predict, and we tend to do this most of the time, swinging backward and forward – a type of mental time travel.
Mental time travel is more likely to occur when we go on ‘autopilot’ doing everyday routine tasks.
These are tasks that we know we can do without too much focus and attention. Tasks we can trust our bodies to do while our mind goes off thinking about other things such as our morning routine, showering, brushing teeth, dressing, eating, or even driving.
Remember when you first learned to drive. You were hyper-alert to every movement, every sound. You felt your grip on the steering wheel, the squeeze of the accelerator and the brake. Now you can go through the motions not paying any real attention to it, sometimes not even remembering the journey of getting from A to B! Autopilot can also happen while we are doing everyday household chores like folding clothes, ironing, washing dishes or cleaning floors.
Being present with others
We can also go on to autopilot in familiar relationships, with people we see daily such as our intimate partners, children and colleagues. Being on autopilot and not focused means we are not actually ‘there’ for those people and those interactions. You may remember an interaction with a loved one or a good friend when your were busy in your head planning your next meeting or going over some conversation or argument you had earlier. You may have been thinking about the emails you needed to write.
Of course there are times when we are vigilantly focused on the task at hand especially if we are learning something new, or it is a tricky situation and we need to concentrate for safety or even when we are highly entertained.
Developing mindfulness isn’t just about paying attention; it is being present to take in all the information of what’s happening at this very moment. This enables us to make good and appropriate decisions as well as respond appropriately to things. Being present increases our memory as we are processing more information. It also brings us more joy and happiness, as we are present to enjoy things as they are happening.
Mindfulness – the time to start is now!
So to start a new way of paying attention, just like starting a new exercise routine, you need to start to be present one step at a time.
At Exploring Mindful Moments we can help you build your mindfulness practice either through one of our programs or if you don’t want to commit to a multi-week program, you may like to come along to our Monday Meditations.