What is mindfulness and how is it practiced?

by Tracey Moggeridge, Mindfulness Practitioner, Pearn Kandola

You’ve probably heard the term “mindfulness” crop up in everyday conversation or scrolled past a tweet about it on your timeline. But what does it really mean?

Essentially, mindfulness is about being present in the moment; stopping to smell the roses along your way in life and improving your self-awareness. All in all, mindfulness isn’t an overly complicated concept, but there can be a lot to it.

In 1994, Jon Kabat-Zinn, scientist, writer and meditation teacher, identified the nine attitudes of mindfulness, defining it as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally.” Kabat-Zinn described the process of practicing mindfulness as removing a lens of distortion and learning more about ourselves as individuals, enabling us to notice and cope with the uncomfortable situations that we’re often dealt in daily life.

The concept of experience

When we talk about experience, it’s important to note that there are two types: primary and secondary.

Say, for example, that you’re taking a driving test. You’re aware of the other cars on the road, the instructor sitting beside you and the sound and feel of the engine in your car. Your immediate feeling might be one of nervousness or anxiety. This awareness of “the here and now” is known as primary experience; the things that you can see and feel around you.

Secondary experience, on the other hand, refers to the additional thoughts and feelings that we layer on top of the primary experience. In the driving test scenario, for example, you might be worried about the pressure you feel to pass, the number of your friends that have already passed first time and whether you could afford to pay for another test if you fail. The reality, however, is that you are simply sitting in a car with your examiner, about to take a test, and are feeling nervous.

Mindfulness is all about helping to distinguish between these two types of experience and learning to bring yourself back to your primary experience.

Misconceptions about mindfulness

Mindfulness has become a popular topic, but many of the opinions that people invest in aren’t given by real experts, meaning there are a number of misconceptions about how to practice it.

One common misconception is that practicing mindfulness is easy. For some, being more mindful is much simpler than for others, but that’s not to say that it isn’t still difficult. Being able to focus only on your primary experience takes practice and consistency. Many feel that their efforts make little difference in the beginning, but in the same way that it does while learning any new skill or technique, practice really does pay off.

Similarly, many believe that practicing mindfulness is an occasional activity or a hobby; one that doesn’t require regular attention. Having a routine or plan is essential, though. You wouldn’t expect to be able to run a marathon without training for it first, and mindfulness is the same. You won’t feel the benefits of a calmer state of mind or less negativity in your thinking if you only meditate once in a blue moon. It’s a form of mental exercise that should be built into your day.

There’s also a tendency to think of mindfulness as simply a form of meditation. Although meditation practices like a ‘body scan’ are certainly some of the most common ways to practice mindfulness, it’s important to remember that it can actually involve a range of different practices, such as yoga.

Finally, we need to dispel the myth that mindfulness can be used as a remedy for various different ailments. Indeed, someone who has suffered some form of mental trauma might actually find that a mindfulness practice causes more harm. In many cases, mindfulness requires sensitivity, and to be delivered by a qualified teacher.

How to practice mindfulness

Mindfulness doesn’t have to be one-dimensional; it can be achieved in a whole host of different environments. You could practice on a walk, at work or even at the dinner table. I, personally, like to practice mindfulness when I’m brushing my teeth. Wherever you might be, try to slow down and use all of your senses to really notice what is happening around you in that moment. What sounds can you hear? What smells, colours and textures are present?

Not only are there many different environments for you to practice mindfulness in, but there are also a range of different techniques and routes to go down, so there really is something for everyone.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is the most evidence-based approach to mindfulness, originally developed by Kabat-Zinn in the late 1970s. This method aims to reduce stresses that trouble us for a prolonged period. When stress is dragged out, it can have a massive impact on both your mental and physical health, so trying to avoid this by practicing mindfulness can be incredibly valuable. MBSR involves meditation, yoga and other mind-body exercises, and can help you learn about the best ways to cope with stress by addressing negative thought patterns.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is one of the most commonly discussed elements of psychology, but when we incorporate mindfulness, it becomes Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). MBCT was based on the principles of MBSR but focuses on helping people who suffer from recurrent bouts of depression. This technique was designed to help patients pay attention to the present moment, rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is another approach to mindfulness which aims to teach individuals the skills they need to deal with negative thoughts and help clarify what is truly meaningful. One of the core values of ACT is that you should accept what is out of your personal control and commit to actions that will improve or enrich your life. Breaking mindfulness down into three different categories, ACT helps patients focus on letting go of unhelpful thoughts, make room for negative or distressing feelings, and engage fully with the present through a range of different therapy courses.

Practicing mindfulness might not be easy, but it can be incredibly valuable, and making it a habit is really worth investing your time into. Whether you suffer with stress, anxiety or depression, or would just like to spend more time focusing on the important things in life, there will be a way to achieve mindfulness that suits you.

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