What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the simple act of recognizing what’s going on inside of ourselves and what’s going on around us, in the present moment and without judgement. Mindfulness is a tool that helps us manage thoughts and emotions, notice more of what’s happening in a situation, and immerse ourselves in the present moment as it unfolds.
We can think of mindfulness as two parts: attention and curiosity.
Attention means that we take time to focus our attention and awareness on physical sensations, thoughts that come up, or the environment around us. For example, we remind ourselves to focus on things that we usually ignore such as breathing or the sensations involved in sitting. Other thoughts or sensations may appear, but they come and go.
Curiosity means that we notice things that come to our attention without judging. We are interested in the experience without trying to change it. Think of how easy it is to feel upset when a particular thought or situation comes up. Curiosity means noticing the thought or situation is happening but not reacting to it. Another aspect to curiosity is approaching different situations with no expectation of how it will make us feel. For example, if we set ourselves up to think of a daily task as a chore, we might miss a different aspect of the task that adds meaning to our day. When we are curious, we are open and genuinely interested in the thought or situation.
We’ll go deeper into these two parts on the next page.
Mindfulness is not:
- Emptying the mind of thoughts or feelings
- Ignoring thoughts, feelings, or experiences
- Forcing yourself to relax or feel or certain way. Mindfulness is about recognizing and accepting what you feel, whether good or bad
Why does mindfulness matter?
Many of us unintentionally have ways of thinking that ignore or leave out other parts of the story. For example, it’s common to focus only on negative aspects, make assumptions about how a situation will end, or spend a lot of time thinking about problems. Using mindfulness skills to look at the situation in a more neutral way can have a big impact on the way we understand ourselves and our world. Mindfulness slows us down and gives us time to consider different options when we’re confronted with a problem, so we have the freedom to choose a response, rather than just reacting.
Mindfulness can have a positive impact on our thoughts, behaviours and overall mental well-being—and it can be useful for anyone. It may be particularly helpful for people who experience a number of mental health problems or mental illnesses, including anxiety disorders and mood disorders like depression. There is also some evidence that mindfulness may help in recovery from substance use problems and psychotic disorders, alongside medication.
How does mindfulness work?
Let’s look more at the two parts of mindfulness, attention and curiosity.
We live in a fast-paced world, and there may be many demands competing for our attention. It’s easy to find ourselves somewhere else, such as regretting something that happening in the past or preparing for something in the future. We do this so often that we can completely overlook the little, everyday things in front of us that bring us joy or meaning. Living in the past and the future—living outside of the present—can have a surprising impact on how we think about and understand things that are happening right now.
We tend to immediately pass judgement on our thoughts, our feelings, and our experiences. A misunderstanding with a friend leads to the thought that they don’t really like us. An uncomfortable physical sensation leads to feelings of frustration or even fear.
Here’s an example of mindfulness. Pretend that you have a very important deadline coming up at school or at work:
Someone who is just starting to learn about mindfulness might say, “I started to think about that deadline. What if I can’t get everything done? I wish this thought would just go away. I can’t handle this!” They will likely notice many different reactions to these thoughts, too. They might feel tense, upset and maybe even a little hopeless. They might find it difficult to concentrate or sleep that night.
Someone who regularly practices mindfulness might use their attention skills to recognize the same thought: “What if I can’t get everything done?” They might respond by saying, “Oh look, it’s that thought. I notice how the thought is making me feel: I can sense my shoulders tensing up and my breath changing. This thought makes me feel a bit overwhelmed at this moment, and that’s okay.”
Of course the situation has importance—both people need to meet the same deadline. The difference is in the way our two examples dealt with the situation. The second person was more aware of the thought and how it was making them feel, and could likely use different tools or strategies to help them manage the feeling of being overwhelmed.