‘Mindfulness’ has become a real buzzword in self-improvement circles. Google hosts mindfulness meditation programs for its employees; Emma Watson, Oprah Winfrey and Angelina Jolie are all famous fans. So far, so of the moment, but what exactly does ‘mindfulness’ mean?
Essentially, it means waking up and smelling the coffee. “It’s easy to stop noticing the world around us,” says Professor Mark Williams, former director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre. “We can so easily end up living ‘in our heads’, caught up in our thoughts, not noticing how those thoughts are driving our emotions and behaviour. Mindfulness means reconnecting with our bodies, waking up to the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the present moment.”
There’s nothing mystical about it, either. “You could just be aware of the feel of a banister as you walk upstairs, the taste and texture of food in your mouth, the air moving past the body as you walk,” says Professor Williams. “All this may sound very small, but it has huge power to interrupt the ‘autopilot’ mode we often engage day to day, and to give us new perspectives on life. It’s simply about allowing ourselves to see the present moment more clearly, without being distracted by thoughts.” In other words, think less, notice more. Or quite simply, be.
So how does it help? Well, practice it regularly, and mindfulness can help you become much more aware of the present – and crucially, to better understand yourself. “Mindfulness allows us to become more aware of the stream of thoughts and feelings that we experience,” says Professor Williams. “And to see how we can become entangled in that stream in ways that are not helpful. This allows us to stand back from our thoughts and start to see their patterns. Gradually, we can train ourselves to notice when our thoughts are taking over and realise that thoughts are simply ‘mental events’. They do not have to control us. We can ask: ‘Is trying to solve this by brooding about it helpful, or am I just getting caught up in my thoughts?’ Awareness of this kind also helps us notice signs of stress or anxiety earlier and helps us deal with them better.”
Professor Williams has an analogy that helps explain how mindfulness works. “It might be useful to remember that mindfulness isn’t about making these thoughts go away, but rather about seeing them as mental events. Imagine standing at a bus station and seeing ‘thought buses’ coming and going without having to get on them and be taken away. This can be very hard at first, but with gentle persistence it is possible.”