Mindfulness has been gaining significant traction in the Western world in the last couple of decades, and for good reason. These concepts that have been practiced in Eastern traditions for millennia have now caught the attention of researchers, scientists, educators, and business leaders worldwide, and catapulted it from hippy-dippy magic to gold-standard science.
But despite the spotlight, mindfulness is still widely misunderstood in the general public. Filed away as “one of those things I should probably do, but don’t have time or energy for”, the challenge is now to figure out what the barriers are for people to be able to access it, without feeling confused, intimidated, or silly.
From some conversations I’ve had recently, I’m convinced that one of the main problems we’re facing here is a good old-fashioned case of myth and misconception.
Mindfulness at its core is a very accessible idea that has fantastic outcomes. So, in this post, we’re going to have a go at breaking down some of those barriers by tackling some assumptions that people have about mindfulness.
So before I tell you what mindfulness is, I’m going to tell you what it isn’t.
Religion or a belief system
Nope, mindfulness is completely secular. While some people use it as a part of their spiritual practice, mindfulness itself doesn’t require you to believe in any gods or deities, pray to anyone, or do any rituals or ceremonies.
A set of rules to follow
Tools and techniques, yes, but not rules. Mindfulness is best thought of as a skill that you practice, and you can use that skill in your life in whatever way works for you.
Having an ‘empty mind’
Thinking is what minds do! We’re not trying to stop thinking, we’re trying to be aware of where our attention sits and to accept those thoughts and feelings non-judgmentally.
Stopping the bad thoughts and making yourself have good thoughts
Non-judgemental attention means that rather than controlling thoughts by pushing away ones you see as ‘bad’, and desiring the ones that are ‘good’, you just observe and accept the thoughts for what they are. It’s exhausting fighting or chasing your thoughts! This is much easier said than done but can be an incredibly powerful tool.
A magic solution to all your problems
Ha! I wish.
Meditating for hours on end
You certainly can practice mindfulness for hours on end, but absolutely not necessary for the average person. You can practice mindfulness in a matter of seconds, sprinkled throughout your day. A ‘formal’ mindfulness practice or meditation usually goes for around 15 minutes.
Crystals and astrology
Absolutely not. While these can be practiced in a mindful way, your mindfulness practice doesn’t need to have anything to do with these sorts of things if that’s not your jam.
Okay, this is a little subjective, but it certainly doesn’t have to be! If you’re feeling bored during your practice, sit with the feeling of boredom and notice what that feels like for you, as if you’re a scientist curiously examining the feeling for the first time. Try to accept the feeling without judgment and see what happens.
Changing who you are as a person
The only person who gets to change who you are is you. The whole idea of mindfulness is to be aware of the present moment and to accept it non-judgementally, and that includes accepting yourself. You’re welcome in this practice completely as you are.
Look, if you manage this after one session, give me a call.
Something you do once a day and forget about
Once a day is a great start and can certainly have benefits, but overall mindfulness is a way of approaching all aspects of your life. It’s a skill that you can use throughout your day to ground yourself. Its also a mindset, and a way of looking at the world in an accepting and non-judgemental way.
What mindfulness actually is:
Training your mind to be able to regulate your attention, so you can be more aware of yourself, your thoughts, and your emotions
A helpful tool to help your work through your problems and build resilience
A way to support or improve your mental health
Being in the present moment, rather than ruminating on the past or overthinking the future
Practices that you can use in a matter of seconds to ground or calm yourself
A way to soak in and appreciate good moments
Something that everyone has the ability to do in some form
The most widely used definition of mindfulness is:
"Paying attention in a particular way; on purpose in the present moment, non-judgementally" - Jon Kabat-Zinn
We can work on cultivating mindfulness in lots of ways, which fit into two categories: formal and informal practice.
Formal practice is when you deliberately set time aside to practice mindfulness, where you might do a body scan meditation, practice breath awareness, or do a session of loving-kindness. Personally, I tend to do this once per day for 5-15 minutes, usually right before I go to bed.
Informal practice is when you incorporate mindfulness skills into your everyday activities. For example, mindful eating, mindfully brushing your teeth, grounding breaths throughout your day, or just bringing your attention to the present moment. I use this constantly throughout my day, especially when I can feel myself getting overwhelmed or frustrated! Or I use these practices to really soak up good experiences so that I can appreciate them fully.
So where do yoga and meditation fit into mindfulness?
In a way, all yoga is mindfulness, but not all mindfulness is yoga.
The idea of yoga is to do movements in a mindful and intentional way, which means that during the practice you get the benefits of both movement and mindfulness.
Having said that, there are many yoga asana (movement) classes that focus less on the mindful aspect of yoga and emphasise the physicality of it.
When it comes to meditation, we have a distinct overlap.
When we’re practicing mindfulness, we’re not always meditating. You might be brushing your teeth or having breakfast while using mindfulness techniques to focus your attention on the present moment. And there are lots of types of meditations, with a selection of them specifically categorised as mindfulness meditation. For example, body scan meditations, breath awareness, and sensory meditation.
The main takeaway here is that everyone has the ability to develop these skills, to be able to train your attention, regulate your own thoughts and emotions, and bring yourself back into the present moment.
Like building any other skill, it might take time and patience, but the benefits can be a real game-changer.
Stay tuned for our next posts about what happens in the brain and body when you practice yoga and mindfulness, and how they can be helpful in your life!
If you’re interested in exploring mindfulness more, Leah is a trained and certified Mindfulness Facilitator!
You can get in touch with us about classes, courses, and workshops here.