Learn the what, why and how of mindfulness
If you are new to mindfulness this page is made just for you. It provides an easy read overview of what mindfulness is with links to further reading.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the ability we all have to simply notice our moment to moment experience.
A common definition of mindfulness
Jon Kabat-Zinn, a recognised authority in the field of mindfulness, describes it as
"paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally."
An easy way to understand that is to think about the opposite of the term, mindlessness, in other words - distracted.
Distracted means not paying attention. That could be to what we are doing, what someone is saying or even to what is going on inside our heads.
This happens when we believe we can do things without thinking.
When you were learning to drive, you would have focused on every aspect of that task but now you can probably do it without thinking and that means you can hold a conversation or think about something else. You could say you are doing it on autopilot; it's become second nature.
The trouble with autopilot
The brain is often considered to be made up of three parts. The basic system or reptilian brain that connects to the rest of the body via the brainstem, the limbic system thought to be responsible for emotional response, and over the top is the youngest part, the prefrontal cortex, our logical thinking brain.
As using the logical-thinking part of the brain requires the greatest amount of energy, the brain readily creates and runs "programmes" for activities we do often.
Being released from needing to pay close attention, our mind is free to do other things.
Unfortunately, when left to its own devices our mind usually wanders to things unfinished, regrets, worries and other types of negative thinking, which usually means we are rewinding to the past or forwarding into the future.
Either way it’s not being present. Your attention is not on the here and now.
Benefits of being mindful
Learning how to be mindful means we can not only pay attention to what is going on around us but can also observe our thoughts and sensations in the body.
This is key as the two are connected.
Our thoughts can trigger chemical and hormonal reactions in the body that we might feel such as increased heartbeat, churning or butterflies in the stomach, sweaty hands and such sensations might set off stories in our heads (I am nervous) which can create a self-perpetuating feedback loop.
By consciously choosing to pay attention to the present moment we can disengage from troubling thoughts that can lower our mood, our ability to concentrate and our ability to achieve something.
Using mindfulness we can learn our habits of mind and triggers for certain responses. We begin to recognise our automatic (re)actions, our negative thinking tracks, our blindspots and our bias. In other words, things that are in the subconscious become conscious which means we can take proactive self-care action.
Over time we find we can respond rather than react to taxing or difficult situations. This means we begin to live at choice, to create the life we want and become the person we want to be.
It also helps us to better tune into tension or other sensations in the body. We realise we can check-in with what is going on for us and dial down the stress response before it floods our system and we perhaps feel overwhelmed.
Research has found that mindfulness practice will increase resilience and enhance well-being. Not just because we begin to manage how we think, feel and behave but because it changes the structure of the brain in beneficial ways.
Regular practice also changes the brain. It reduces the size of the amygdala (associated with the stress response) and thickens the pre-frontal cortex (the executive centre responsible for rational and logical thinking) and the hippocampus (associated with memory and learning).
Related: Learn the mindful SOS technique
Will mindfulness help me at work?
The ability to pay mindful attention to the here and now together with the associated effects of a regular meditation practice can benefit all aspects of our lives including work.
Putting mindfulness to work can lead to:
Improved relationships and communication
Increased creativity and collaboration
Enhanced concentration and focus
Better stress management
Reduced emotional exhaustion
Better ability to cope with change
However for mindfulness at work training programmes to be successful they must be voluntary and not be seen as a silver bullet for making employees “go for longer”.
That said, there is nothing stopping you from learning outside of work and reaping the benefits whilst there. That’s what I did and it changed my life.
What proof is there that mindfulness works?
The benefits of mindfulness have been studied since the late 1970s when Jon Kabat-Zinn started teaching what became known as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
He first taught those suffering with chronic pain whom the medical profession could do little for but now MBSR is taught to those living with a wide range of physical and mental health conditions.
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) was developed by leading scientist-practitioners. It combines cognitive therapy principles with a mindfulness practice.
Having recognised that unhelpful thinking plays a role in depressive episodes Zindel Segal, Mark Williams and John Teasdale were researching a means to teach people how to notice and disengage from such thought patterns. Through a number of research trials MBCT was found to be as beneficial as taking anti-depressants for those who have had three such episodes.
Mindfulness-based therapies are an evidence-based self-management technique approved by the NHS (the UK National Health Service) and endorsed by its National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE).
How do you become mindful?
Just like getting physically fit, to be mentally fit we need to work at it.
Although we may choose to focus our attention on something - the ticking of a clock or the warmth of the sun on our skin - we can be easily distracted by thoughts, other sensations or feelings.
As mindfulness is about owning your attention, it’s a skill and like any skill you need to train yourself to be able to do it.
Mindfulness trainers say it is like going to the gym; each time you practice you are creating new pathways in your brain and developing your attention muscle.
Those who are mindful regularly practice using particular attention training meditation exercises.
This helps in a number of ways:
you strengthen your ability to pay attention at will,
you develop a mindful observational stance,
you see thoughts as mental events,
you can notice when you are beginning to feel anxious, stressed or worried and take appropriate action.
Just 10 minutes practice a day for 8 weeks is thought to be enough to see changes in the brain itself but even after a week or two of regular practice you are likely to notice benefits.
Mindfulness for all
These days you can't seem to do anything without coming across the word mindfulness - it seems to be everywhere.
I think that's a good thing, after-all it's an ability we all have, we were just schooled in thinking and thus live much of the time in our heads. We just need reminding how to do it.
Ways to learn mindfulness
As interest in mindfulness has grown so too have the ways to learn it.
Do it yourself - book
The only book I recommend is Mindfulness: a guide to finding Peace in a Frantic World. It is the primary text I refer to in the mindfulness courses I teach.
This was written by one of the key researchers of MBCT, Mark Williams of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, UK and Danny Penman. It adapts the original MBCT course into a self-help format for the general population.
Do a course - clinical setting
Both MBSR and MBCT are clinically oriented programs typically taught in group sessions and for an 8 week period with home meditation practice of about 30-45 minutes.
You could talk to your doctor if you think you would benefit from a mindfulness-based therapy intervention like MBSR or MBCT.
Do a course - non-clinical setting
Alternatively, if you are interested in what it might bring to your life generally, you will likely find courses and teachers advertised locally and online.
I recommend attending a taster session before you sign up so that you are comfortable with the trainer's teaching style and spend time confirming their qualifications and personal practice. You can not teach what you don't have.
Learning to be mindful is not a short-term thing. Courses are generally taught over 6-8 weeks so that you establish a daily practice and start to embed mindful presence into your life.
Discover: 6 benefits of daily meditation
Start right now
You could start today. This very moment in fact by stepping into the present by really taking notice of something via one of your senses. Noticing, not thinking.
This is about simply being with your experience and allowing it to be as it is.
Tune in to the sounds around you
Examine an object; seeing shadow and light
Stroke something; a surface, clothing, pet
Inhale; what do you smell, do you notice temperature?
Take a mouthful - hold it on your mouth, savour it
Thinking mindfulness might be for you?
Practical ways to build resilience, restore balance and improve well-being at work
by Tracey Hewett