Mindful: Talking through or care of; heedful; keeping/having remembrance of.
Mindfulness: The quality of being mindful; attention; regard.
Most people live their lives not in the present, but in the past or in the future. Imagine that you are driving a car to work. Where is your attention? Typically you will have some attention on the road (enough to make sure you are aware of other road users, or you would crash), however you are likely to be thinking of what you will do when you arrive at work, the tasks you have to do, the people you will meet and what you will say to them. You might remember an incident the previous day and how you feel about that. You might imagine what you should have said.
There is an old joke, usually told by male stand-up comedians, about a couple making love and the wife thinking: 'That ceiling needs painting!'.
Even if the thoughts of the past are pleasant (the Golden Days), it is merely nostalgia and thinking longingly of the future is wishful thinking.
There is also a tendency to flit from one thought to another in a butterfly fashion, which has been termed 'the monkey mind'. Many thoughts flash through our minds in an uncontrolled and confusing way. This takes away our power of concentration and prevents us from achieving as much as we might. Self-development books emphasise the benefits of concentration and persistence.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is about being in the 'now': being present in this body, at this time, doing this thing. It has a quiet, unassuming and unobtrusive nature. It is also non-judgemental and not characterised by emotional reactions. It is often linked with compassion1.
The simplest form of mindfulness, which can be practiced very easily without anyone noticing is to focus on the breath for three inhalations and exhalations. Some people do this hourly. It involves taking in a deliberate breath and noticing the quality of the air as it enters the body through the nostrils and making its way to the lungs. Then, when exhaling, you focus on the air as it leaves your body.
It's worth taking a look at the way you breathe. Most people breathe quite shallowly, using only the top part of their lungs. For the purposes of mindfulness breathing, you should use the whole of your capacity. This means inflating the bottom part first, which can be done by allowing your belly to swell (a bit like a balloon). Next, fill the mid-section by expanding your ribs sideways. Finally fill the top part of your lungs.
If you are sitting down, you can augment this by noticing the feel of the chair underneath your buttocks and the ground on your feet.
This practice will bring you back to the present moment and is very grounding.
Another form of meditation is the Walking Meditation. This can be done alone or in company. The walking can also be described as intentional. Walking mindfully entails focussing on the breath (as described above), placing and planting the feet purposefully and intentionally and being conscious of the ground, the surroundings and staying in the present moment.
Is Mindfulness the Same as Concentration?
There are distinct differences between mindfulness and concentration, although they both have their part to play in meditation. Concentration (sometimes called one-pointedness) involves the force of will. Mindfulness is more paying attention, of noticing and has a gentler quality. Mindfulness will notice when attention has gone astray and concentration will pull it back.
What are the Benefits?
If practiced regularly and diligently, mindfulness will allow an individual to be more aware of the types of habitual thinking to which s/he is accustomed. It can bring clarity of thought and help to clean the mental household, so to speak, by bringing order to thinking. It can promote self understanding and help correct faulty perceptions and misunderstandings.
Practitioners find mindfulness creates spaces between stimulus and response. This allows a choice of response. A side effect of meditating is to create spaces around reactions in everyday life.
A person using mindfulness is likely to be clearer on goals and be able to achieve them more effectively and efficiently.
Dealing with Anger
Mindfulness can also be used to respond to anger, in ourselves or in another person.
It is important to recognise that dealing with anger appropriately does not mean suppressing the anger (or 'stuffing' it). This merely forces anger underground, where it can break out in unforeseen ways, for example in remarks, or it can bring on depression (anger turned inward). Anger needs to be recognised and taken care of.
An analogy that Thich Nhat Hanh2 uses is of a potato. You have to cover the pot and cook it for at least 20 minutes and not allow the water to boil over. Anger is like a kind of potato and mindfulness is like the fire, cooking the potato. Raw potatoes are indigestible and the cooking is taking care of it, so that it becomes tender and you do not suffer so much. It is still there, but it is being taken care of.
This can be done in a partnership in a three step method and should be done within 24 hours.
- Acknowledging the anger, for example: 'Darling, I suffer, I'm angry and I want you to know it'.
- Stating that you are doing your best.
- Asking for help, eg, 'Please, do help me'.
A further step might be to set a time to look at this together, say in three or four days time. This will allow time to understand better what caused the conflict and to practice mindfulness.
Anger is like a seed. If it is watered, it grows. You might agree not to water the seeds of anger in each other.
Another way of handling anger is to write a letter. This is very helpful where you are not able to be certain of keeping your composure or being able to speak in a loving and calm way. In this case a letter is safer. You can tell the other person that there are things which s/he has done which have hurt you. It might be helpful to include something that recognises that you might be a victim of wrong perceptions. Writing can allow you to make changes to what you are saying if it come out unskillfully and you can take your time in doing it.
You also need to acknowledge the suffering in the other person. This way you open the path to communication.
Obstacles to the Mindfulness Meditation
Obstacles generally fall into the following categories:
- External disturbances such as noises or interruptions;
- 'Mental defilements' such as anger, lust, restlessness, dissatisfaction or sloth;
- Stray thoughts or daydreams.
The practice of mindfulness will help you notice when your mind is on something else and it will become easier to gently bring your attention back. In the beginning, you may have to 'tough it out'. With practice, you will be able to bring mindfulness into your everyday life.
You don't need to move at a snail's pace to be mindful. You don't even need to be calm. You can be mindful while solving problems in intensive calculus. You can be mindful in the middle of a football scrimmage.