A Cornerstone of Wellbeing
Every moment there is a continuously changing stream of thoughts, feelings, and reactions happening within each of us. The practice of seeing that stream of activity more objectively, without being carried away, is called mindfulness.
Essentially, mindfulness is the ability to be aware of what we are doing while we are doing it, by purposefully paying attention to both our internal and external experiences, which in turn leads to being fully present in the moment.
Many people live life in a mentally unaware state, just doing what needs to be done in an automatic fashion without investing much thought or attention to the activity; this is mindlessness. Mindfulness, on the other hand, is a form of conscious living, because it uses effort and discipline to bring our awareness to the activities of the present moment.
We can cultivate mindfulness by acknowledging this stream of experiences and impartially observing it. This process is both simple and powerful because it helps us see reality for what it is, not what we imagine or want it to be. This allows us to work more skilfully with the truth of the moment.
Quite frequently we take our thoughts and feelings too seriously, clinging to them as if they are a permanent reality. We let our emotions own us rather than owning them and, by doing so, we identify with them, losing the distinction between our thoughts and our very being.
When we own our thoughts, we learn to see them for what they really are, non-permanent feelings and thoughts. We can recognize statements like, “I am having the thought that I am not good enough”, or “I’m noticing that I feel sad in my heart”, as only temporary, existing within the moment, and impermanent. If we allow them to own us, however, we think in terms of I am not good enough or I am sad. The truth is, we are who we are and we cannot be defined by the stream of thoughts and feelings flowing through us, just as if we were to watch a river flow, we would not be defined by the water.
The second part of mindfulness is non-judgemental observation. When we first pay attention to the activities of our own mind, we discover how often we generate judgments about the experiences we are having. We label, evaluate, and categorize everything, usually as good or bad, right or wrong. For example, “I can’t stand this pain; it means something terrible is happening” or “I don’t like the way she said that” are judgemental observations.
These judgements create emotional and physiological responses in us that make it more difficult to feel calm and peaceful. The mind, like a roller coaster, goes up and down all day, affecting our state of wellbeing, all because of our own judgments.
Mindfulness requires that we also suspend criticism of our judgements. In other words, there is no need to judge ourselves for judging. Rather than saying things like, “oh look, here I go again, I’m so judgmental”, we should merely observe, and think “well, isn’t this interesting, I’m aware of my judgmental thought”. It is a fine line, but an important one.
When we own our thoughts and feelings, they no longer have power over us. When we are unaware of our internal experiences, they dictate our behaviour and get us into trouble, leaving us to wonder how we got there.
One of the first skills I teach clients is this ability to be present with their internal experience without needing to judge or change anything about it, but simply being curious about their internal truth. This provides them with opportunities to make choices involving their thoughts and feelings, to understand them, and relate to them, without being controlled by them.
It may sound simple, but being mindful is much easier said-than-done. It requires a radical shift in our willingness to experiment with ourselves. Most of all, it requires practice and patience.
Mindfulness is a key component in achieving a sense of wellbeing, as it provides a tool to help us take charge of the direction and quality of our lives.