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Mindfulness meditation is a method for sitting in silence and paying attention to thoughts, sounds, the sensations of breathing, or parts of the body, bringing your attention back to your meditation object whenever your mind starts to wander or becomes distracted.
In our every day lives, we are all guilty of neglecting our minds, allowing our brains to be lulled into a lazy, neglected, and unaware state. It is as if we are allowing ourselves to be sculpted by bland and repetitive consumerism, our individuality being chiseled away by tedium we cannot even be bothered to challenge with any will.
Life need not be like that. We are each blessed with a powerful mind; but normally people have forgotten or, most likely, never even knew how to use it. It is such a waste of our own greatest resource.
One way to start to extricate ourselves from the mindless quicksand is to gently exercise our minds, using mindfulness and meditation as a way of bringing ourselves more emphatically into the real world, and start the process of exercising control over our minds and our lives.
Mindfulness practices can help us to increase our ability to regulate emotions, decrease stress, anxiety, and depression. It can also help us to focus our attention, as well as to observe our thoughts and feelings without judgment.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, the leading mindfulness researcher in the field of psychology, and developer of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, further clarifies that engaging in mindfulness is a secular practice and not a form of religion.
It’s true that mindfulness is often used to complement religious practices by quieting one’s mind before prayer or meditation. But while meditation can be a method of practicing mindfulness, mindfulness can also be practiced in non-religious ways.
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Essentially, mindfulness is a form of meditation that has been adopted by CBT. CBT, in turn, is ‘cognitive behavioral therapy’; a psychotherapeutic approach that can be used to treat all manner of psychological conditions like anxiety, phobias, addiction, etc.
Mindfulness essentially gives us a tool that we can use to not only calm our thoughts and escape the stressors of the day but also reflect on the contents of our mind in the interests of self-improvement.
Meditation generally has something of a ‘bad’ reputation. That is to say that a lot of people associate it with religion or esoteric ideas and they think that they can’t meditate unless they’re spiritual’. This can be off-putting for someone who doesn’t hold any religious beliefs or who don’t like esoteric ideas in general.
But in fact, you can practice meditation whether you are religious or an atheist. All meditation really is, is a directed attempt to control your thoughts and the content of your mind and thereby to gain some peace and quiet or at least to be able to better understand the contents of your own brain.
Often this means completely silencing all thoughts. Many types of meditation, such as transcendental meditation, instruct you to think of ‘absolutely nothing’ and often this is achieved by focussing on your breathing, a mantra, or a physical object like a candle flame. This can be difficult for beginners though, as they constantly find their minds wandering.
The idea behind mindfulness meditation then is not to try and empty your thoughts but instead to simply step back from them and ‘observe’ them like a detached third party. This way, you aren’t letting your thoughts affect you and make you stressed but you also aren’t going to struggle with not being ‘allowed’ to think anything.
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Meanwhile, using this technique will also allow you to become more aware of your own thoughts and thereby able to edit any thoughts that are leading you into trouble. For instance, if you constantly find yourself thinking about the ways that you could hurt yourself, you might notice that this is a bad habit and then attempt to fix that.
This may be the long term aim of mindfulness when used in CBT. In the short term though, we are simply to use it in order to remove ourselves from our thoughts and emotions so that we can get some calm and thereby recover ready to tackle the day ahead.
Mindfulness in Daily Life – Awareness 101
This is what mindfulness refers to in most cases but it has also been appropriated to mean a lot more. If mindfulness means being more aware of your thoughts, then it can also be applied outside of meditation and to the way you go about your day. In this case, mindfulness simply means being mindful of what you’re focussing on and what you’re thinking at any given point. This is useful because very often you’ll find that your mind isn’t perhaps where it should be.
For example, if you are walking through a beautiful scenic woodland but you are thinking about work, then as far as your body is concerned you may as well be at work. In this case, mindfulness can be used simply to make yourself more aware of where you are and to actually focus on what’s around you. That means feeling the breeze on your skin, looking at the beautiful flowers, and smelling the fresh air. When you do all that, you will benefit much more from the experience.
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Likewise, you can use mindfulness to direct your attention to all manner of other things. For example your physical sensations. Often we aren’t aware of just how we’re sitting, how we’re standing, or how we’re feeling.
Take a moment right now to reflect on this. How comfortable are you at the moment? Does any part of your body hurt? If you’re sitting down, then where is most pressure on you? Can you feel your clothes against your body? A watch maybe? How warm are you? Are you leaning more to one side?
This kind of mindfulness can be useful if you want to try and fix your posture but also if you want to improve your abilities in sports or just move more efficiently.
Being more mindful of the way you speak can meanwhile help you to speak more eloquently, to stop using derogatory words, to stop swearing, or to change the whole way that people perceive you. For example, if you want to sound more intelligent, then you can simply try using bigger words or speaking a little more slowly.
You can also use mindfulness to be happier in everyday life. Simply try to stop letting negative emotions affect you by identifying them as temporary and destructive. You can simply ‘notice’ that you’re getting angry and acknowledge that your thoughts will be tainted by that. With practice, this can make you a much calmer and much happier person. But what do you find when you try and do this?
In all likelihood, you’ll find that you forget. This is just the same way that you forget to pick up bread when your other half asks you to. And it’s just the same way you forget to pick up your keys on the way out of the house. The point is most of the time we have no control over what we’re focused on or what we’re paying attention to. And as such, we find ourselves forgetting things, getting into bad habits, or stressing when we should be enjoying ourselves.
Practicing mindfulness both as a form of meditation and during the day can, therefore, help you to improve your ability to control your thoughts and thereby to decide how you want to improve yourself and what you want to focus on.
Creating a mindfulness meditation is a gentle but powerful exercise. But how do you go about it?
A Simple Mindfulness Meditation Exercise
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As with any meditation session, you need to get into a relaxed and comfortable position, eyes closed, and then commence with deep nasal breathing, focusing your thoughts on the breathing to ease yourself into a meditative state.
Once you feel that you are calmed by your breathing and that your breath is under your rhythmic control, then you can move on to focusing on your own body, one body part at a time. I was first taught this at yoga class, where we were taught to concentrate first of all on the left foot, focusing on it from a position above ourselves.
Then move up the body slowly, left ankle, knee, thigh, and so on. When reaching your head, you then do the same in reverse on the other side of the body: right shoulder, right elbow, right hand, and so on.
Once you have completed the tour of your own body, as if you were someone else examining it, then it is time to open your eyes and increase the mindfulness of your surroundings.
To do this, focus on any object in the room; it does not have to be anything special: a cup on the coffee table, a vase, a plastic flower, anything. Try to maintain that focus for half a minute, and then move on to any other object. You can repeat this several times, always maintaining a focus on your own body and your own breathing, creating a triple harmony with each object on which you focus.
By using this simple mindfulness meditation you are increasing awareness both of yourself and your surroundings, in a very gentle and easy way. It can serve as a prelude to some mental task, as well as being part of an ongoing mindfulness campaign to strengthen and expand the use of your own mind.