What exactly is mindfulness?

Updated: Jan 21

When did you last stop and notice what was going on around you and inside you? Life can be so full of distractions that it’s easy to charge through each day in a bit of a blur. Our minds are amazing things but they can often run away with us, going into overdrive with thoughts and information.

At any one time we might be talking to friends, scrolling social media, cooking ourselves some dinner and thinking about what we have planned for the next day- we are a generation of multi taskers and it’s rare that we really focus in on one task and really give it all of our attention.

Professor Mark Williams, former director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre says, "It's easy to stop noticing the world around us. It's also easy to lose touch with the way our bodies are feeling and to end up living 'in our heads' – caught up in our thoughts without stopping to notice how those thoughts are driving our emotions and behaviour,"

So what is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is when we take some time to focus on the present moment. When we really notice what our bodies are feeling and pay close attention to the things that are happening around us, however small.

It also helps us to break our thought patterns and identify which of our thoughts are helpful and which aren’t helpful and might be keeping us stuck.

Being mindful can also help us be much more aware of when we are feeling okay or not so okay, it helps us get back in touch with our bodies and start to notice more how our bodies are doing each day and what makes us feel good or not good.

So what are some mindfulness activities and how do you do mindfulness? Below are a couple of mindful exercises that you can practice right now!

1. Take a few moments to focus on your breathing. Close your eyes, get comfy and notice how fast or slow your breath is coming, is it deep? Shallow? Smooth? Ragged? Is it easy to take a breath or does it feel hard work? Are you breathing deep within your belly or is it your chest that is moving? Don’t try and change anything. Just notice it.

2. Next check in with your body. Starting with the tips of your toes focus all of your attention on each tiny body part. How do your toes feel? Do you know? Are they hot or cold? Do they tingle when you put your attention on then? Do you feel any sensations? Perhaps you don’t feel anything? Notice it all! Then what about the bottoms of your feet? And your heels? What do you notice about how they feel? Work your way up your entire body like this and notice every tiny thing that you might be feeling.

3. Next focus on your mind. Is it quiet and still or is it buzzing with thoughts? Can you notice how your thoughts come and go? Is it easy to try and step away from them and simply observe them or do you find yourself quickly drawn back in? Do your thoughts follow a pattern? Just watch for a little while and notice how your mind is working. Is there an image or a pattern that could describe it?

4. Move your attention outside of your body to your immediate environment. What can you hear? What is the temperature like? What can you smell? How does the place you are in make you feel? Can you notice the different things going on very close by to you and then further away? What tiny sounds or movements are you aware of? Do you feel comfortable where you are right now?

5. Finally, take a moment to notice your breathing and your body once more. How do you feel now compared to when you started? You might feel the same or you might feel different. There is no right or wrong. Just notice.

Being mindful isn’t about going into it wanting a certain outcome or to feel a certain way. It’s about tuning in to how you are feeling and the world around you.

There are lots of ways to practice mindfulness. You can practice at any time on your own. However, some people like to take part in organised activities and groups such as yoga and tai-chi can be great ways to practice your mindfulness skills.

Yoga & tai-chi

Mindfulness isn’t just about your mind! Not only can you practice mindfulness when you’re being active, there are some physical activities that are designed specifically with mindfulness in mind!

Yoga and Tai-Chi are great examples of activities that can help you to tune into your body and mind at the same time. Yoga puts a real focus on breathing and activating different parts of your body. Maintaining a pose can draw your attention to a particular part of the body and the different feelings it goes through as you stretch or put pressure on it. Yoga and tai-chi also build how we breathe into different poses and movements. Focusing on your breath is a key element of mindfulness. Noticing what your breath is doing can help you understand how you are feeling but also change how you are feeling.

Meditation

You can meditate alone which many people find helpful. However some prefer to be guided through a meditation by someone else, whether in person or via a recording or app. See what works best for you. Likewise, you can meditate wherever you like! Some people like to sit down, eyes closed and in the calm quiet. Others love to meditate outside, on the bus, walking in the woods during their lunch break. Again find what works best for you!

Meditation put simply is when you spend time noticing your thoughts and most of the rest is down to you. Rather than get caught up in them you just notice where your mind is going, what it is doing and each time you feel yourself getting caught up in thinking you gently bring your mind back to simply observing. Imagine yourself sitting just outside of your head watching everything going on and watching your thoughts go by. If you’re starting out having some guidance can be helpful and also support you to stay in the moment.

What are the benefits of being mindful and what is mindfulness good for?

Just by taking a few minutes to become aware of your thoughts can have real impact on your mental health, help you to manage stress and anxiety and even help you to sleep better, manage pain and have an increased sense of mental wellbeing.

Mindfulness might not be the cure for how you are feeling but it can be a helpful tool to have in your toolbox of coping mechanisms. It also gives you a great opportunity to stop and take stock during your week. It can help you to notice the world around you and take joy in some of the simple things that are all around us every day. Learning to step outside and manage your thoughts can also be really helpful if you find yourself getting caught up in unhelpful thought patterns, anxiety and feeling low.

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