Despite existing for 2500 years or so, mindfulness has been gaining popularity in recent years. One of the reasons for this is the large body of evidence – both anecdotally and scientifically – of the benefits that practicing mindfulness can bring (the key word here is “practicing” by the way).
I only discovered mindfulness about eight months ago and so I’m a beginner in every possible way, but I am hooked and converted. If we sit next to each other at a dinner party, only ask me about mindfulness or meditation if you have a solid hour to kill.
So what is mindfulness?
One of the truly remarkable features of the human brain is that we can model ourselves in the future. Other animals do not possess this ability. This skill has been a great benefit to our biological dominance, but it is also a curse as we spend far too much time there.
Most of us go through life never being truly present. We are constantly thinking about the past – remembering moments, second-guessing our decisions, ruminating on our regrets, etc. And if we are not thinking about the past, we are fantasising about the future – what we will say, that email you need to write when you get back to the office, what car you’ll buy, etc. We are rarely experiencing the only time that truly exists – the present.
In a nutshell, mindfulness is the process of focusing your attention on the present moment and increasing your awareness and acceptance of what you are doing, how you are feeling, the people around you and so on. It is incredibly calming.
The Buddhists have an expression called “Monkey Mind”. It is when your brain is overactive and jumping all over the place – what you said to someone, what they said, what you could have said better, I’m hungry, I like that tree, I need to go to the gym, where are my car keys, what should I have for dinner… constantly, non-stop. It’s exhausting.
By focusing your attention on something in the present moment, it brings you back from this crazy mental world and anchors your attention back to the right now.
It is so simple too. Just the act of thinking about being present, automatically makes you so. You don’t need to do anything else. If you are driving – just think about how the steering wheel feels in your hands. If you are walking outside – just feel the wind on your face. It is easy and so effective that it is shocking to me that this isn’t taught in school.
How about meditation?
Meditation is the greatest skill that you can learn to achieve mindfulness. Do you need to meditate to be more mindful? No. But if mindfulness is like health and fitness, then meditation is like running, cycling or going to the gym. It is how you strengthen your mind to be more attentive, improve your concentration and to eliminate your monkey brain.
Forget about all the chanting, crystal-channelling, tie-dye wearing loonies that might talk about meditating; don’t let that image scare you. Through the power of functional MRI machines, meditation has been scientifically proven to actually change your brain.
The goal of meditation is to achieve “no mind” – the point where you are aware, present, calm and without any thoughts. This is not easy.
Have you ever heard a sound in the middle of the night and sat up in bed to listen? In that moment, you are completely present. All of your attention is on listening – you have no thoughts. This is known as a peak moment and gives you a small sampling of the “no mind” sensation (without all the adrenaline).
Your mind constantly wanders and when you practice meditation you continuously bring it back to the focus of your attention – usually your breath. If your mind wanders 100 times or 500 time, then you bring it back 100 or 500 times. And over time, it wanders less and you get better and holding your attention. You also get better at noticing the mind wander and can bring it back before you get lost in a thought.
The best explanation I have heard is this: Imagine yourself sitting on a bench next to a busy road. Cars are whizzing past. These cars are your thoughts. As you get better at meditating, the cars still exist but the gaps between the cars widen. Eventually, there are very few cars on the road and you are simply sitting on a bench next to an empty road.
My journey through books
My introduction into mindfulness came from a very unexpected source – a book by American anchorman (news reader) Dan Harris called “10% Happier”.
In this book, Harris describes his journey from sceptic to convert. He investigates meditation and finds that it actually, surprisingly changes his life. When asked about what sort of impact it had on him and how much happier he feels as a result – he responded.. about 10%. And that’s probably right; but perhaps a little low, surely its more like 15%–20%?
So here are the books that got me started on this journey and I would recommend all of them if you are interested to learn more.
10% Happier (Dan Harris)
As mentioned, this is the book that first encouraged me to look further. It is not instructional. It describes that authors journey which is grounded in a solid dose of cynicism which makes it all the more inspiring.
The Power of Now (Eckhart Tolle)
This author is mentioned in Dan Harris’s book and he describes him as a bit loopy. And he seems to be. But if you look past the strange writing style and the author – there is a lot of interesting information most of which is based in Buddhism philosophy.
Hurry Up and Meditate (David Michie)
A great introduction to meditation that covers all of its different styles.
How to Train a Wild Elephant (Jan Chozen Bays)
Great overview of mindfulness full of exercises that go beyond meditation – mindful eating, etc.
In addition to these and other books, I have also relied quite heavily on some excellent iPhone and iPad apps to help you meditate.
Mindfulness is not for hippies and offers a new opportunity to live life more fully and the key to achieving a calmer, more mindful existence is through meditation. Personally, I believe that brain training should be part of any healthy lifestyle – just as much as diet and/or exercise.