Mindfulness. What is it really?

Mindfulness has been a buzz word in the mental health field for a while now. I think many people have misconceptions about what it is. For good reason, as there is no one agreed upon definition!

From the therapeutic approach I am trained in (known as ACT), mindfulness is defined as paying attention to what is unfolding in the present moment with flexibility, openness, curiosity, and kindness.

That’s it you say? Okay, but what does that really mean?

Let’s try a little experiment….

I want you to take a moment, and notice, what thoughts are popping into your head right now? You may say to yourself, I am having a thought about what am I going to have for dinner, or I am having the thought that I am not going to understand this post, or I am having a thought about something stupid I said to Bob the other day. That, is a moment of mindfulness. You are noticing what is unfolding in the present moment.

Now, let’s try something different… I want you to bring your attention to your feet. If you can, gently push your feet into the floor, notice the sensations around your feet. That, is also a moment of mindfulness. You are noticing what is unfolding in the present moment.

Now, look around the room, and notice 5 things you can see….. now take note of 2 things you can hear. That, is also a moment of mindfulness.

The Stage Show Metaphor

In ACT we say that from our direct experience the world is like a stage show, and on that stage are all your thoughts, your feelings, and everything you can see, hear, taste, smell, and touch. Whenever you stop and notice any one of those things, or notice them all at the same time, you are being mindful.

I think a common misconception with mindfulness is that in order to be in the present moment, your mind has to be completely quiet (i.e. you must have no thoughts). As soon as we have a thought, we conclude that we are somehow “failing at mindfulness” or “mindfulness does not work for me”. This is not the goal of mindfulness. In fact, your mind is never going to stop generating thoughts because that is what minds do! As soon as you notice the thought, and say to yourself I am having the thought_____ or even better, I notice I am having the thought______, that is a moment of mindfulness!

Mindfulness can be a formal practice (known as meditation) but can also be informal, as we just did above.

The Mind as a Masterful Storyteller

Okay… some of you might still be saying, well what is the point of all this? The point is that mindfulness can be a very useful tool when we are getting pulled in every direction by our thoughts. You see, minds are very good at telling us stories. By “stories” I do not mean that our thoughts are false, I mean that thoughts are simply words and pictures going through our minds. Sometimes it is helpful to listen to these stories…. a car is coming, jump out of the way!!! Other times, these stories are not as helpful… I always screw up, I never do anything right, maybe there is no point in even trying. When we practice mindfulness, we get better and better at unhooking from the unhelpful stories.

More blog posts to follow on this topic.

For now, try experimenting by bringing in moments of mindfulness to your day. Check in at different points in the day, what am I feeling? What am I thinking? What can I see, hear, taste, smell, and touch? Chances are you have already done so but may not have known it was “mindfulness”.

Leave a Reply