Mindfulness is a practice, a way of being. It is a practical skill that can be used to train your ability to think clearly by being present in the here and now, with compassion towards oneself and others.
The benefit of residing in the present moment is that the power of the wandering mind is disarmed. There is only one real moment, and that is the present moment. All else, the past and the future, is created by the mind and played out in the body. If you spend much of your time ruminating about past events that make you sad or angry, or creating a possible future that you do not like, you will feel the response in your body — feelings of stress, anxiety, tension and pain. When you think about something, your body is where you play this out. Some have called this embodied cognition. What happens when you think about food when you are hungry? What happens when you think that someone is looking at you? What happens when you think about your holiday last summer? All just thoughts, but they trigger bodily responses over and over and over.
Considering that we have thousands of thoughts every day, it is not surprising that if they are often negative we can end up feeling tense and stressed much of the time. As we become increasingly stressed, the way we see the world changes. It appears to be more threatening and we respond accordingly. Do you over-react? Do you always look on the negative side? Are you often telling yourself how bad things are? Is this the story you keep telling yourself so that it seems true?
We know that in states of depression, people will focus and over-focus upon the negative aspects of life and then have difficulty changing their attentional bias towards something positive. Similarly, those who suffer anxiety will have heightened vigilance for all things that may pose a threat and ruminate (continually think) upon certain thoughts, creating on-going unpleasant feelings in the body.
The biological effects of on-going stress are well known. When we are stressed we are in a protect mode. Our resources are diverted to protection and away from normal healthy day-to-day activities such as restoration of energy, digestion, sleep, healing, relaxation. Instead, the body’s biological systems are preparing the body for a fight or to run away — increased muscle tension, raised heart rate and breathing rate, switching off sexual and digestive systems (consider the rise of irritable bowel syndrome and fertility issues in the light of this fact). We are also more inflammatory when we are chronically stressed, and this is a problem if you are trying to recover from an injury or have an inflammatory condition such as rheumatoid arthritis.
Where is your mind now? Are you here or have your thoughts drifted to a past event or what may happen in the future?
Training your ability to attend to the present moment has great effects upon health and feelings of wellbeing. This is because when you are present, the mind is unable to trigger the body responses just described. You can become increasingly aware of when the mind does wander, being observant of your thinking rather that being embroiled in your thoughts and living them out through your body.
There are many thoughts and actions that we do automatically — habits. Some habits are useful because we can concentrate on more important things. However, some habits have negative effects upon our health and sense of wellbeing. If these are happening over and over, health can deteriorate, our ability to think clearly is impaired affecting performance, work and relationships and communication is limited by thoughts and emotions interfering. Mindfulness allows us to create awareness of these habits and make changes. We are designed to change, and we can be instrumental in cultivating our health by using mindful practice, thereby reducing tension, pain and stress.
How do I practice mindfulness? Click here
See video below to hear Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh talk about mindfulness: