Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last decade or so, you’ve almost certainly heard of mindfulness (and especially if you’re reading an article like this, on a health and wellbeing page)! And if you have, then I think that’s fantastic because there’s a massive amount of valid and reliable research supporting the notion that the regular practice of mindfulness is good for our physical and mental health, for our wellbeing and even our longevity.
Yet despite the hundreds, if not thousands of well written and widely read articles on this age-old practice, it’s still frequently misunderstood and misused by many, which is why I believe there’s still space for yet another article on mindfulness!
To what am I referring? Well let’s start with some of the myths and misconceptions. Mindfulness is NOT (or is not JUST) …
The answer to life, the universe and everything
A solution to ALL your problems; and especially not in one sitting!
So, what, then, IS mindfulness?
Well, like almost all constructs within psychology, mindfulness can be and has been defined in many ways. But my favourite description is … non-judgemental observation, with curiosity.
Most often, mindfulness experts are referring to non-judgemental observation of emotions; and almost as often, of thoughts. But really, mindfulness can be used to observe any and every internal and external phenomenon of human life. So, in addition to observing feelings and thoughts, the focus of mindfulness can be on behaviours and habits (good and bad), eating and exercising, interactions with others and even responses to global issues and events.
At the risk of oversimplifying, the key here is observing any of these responses or interactions, without necessarily judging such responses as good or bad, as positive or negative. Rather, they should be seen just as they are.
Not surprisingly, this is much easier said than done. We are, by nature, judging animals. And some of this is appropriate and helpful. But some isn’t. And this is where mindfulness, real mindfulness, can really be helpful. In withholding our judgement, we can foil some of those automatically unhelpful and unrealistic thoughts and responses allowing, instead, time and space for more appropriate actions.
Which brings me back to some of those myths and misconceptions. Doing this, or undoing what you’ve been doing, is not easy. It’s possible, but it can take time, practice and diligence. Hence, the benefits of mindfulness will NOT be seen in one sitting, or even one day, or even one week. They will be seen, if one perseveres, but the reality is that for most of us this will take many weeks, if not months or years.
Further, even when one does “master” the practice of mindfulness, it won’t always lead to happiness and joy. Remember, if we’re talking about non-judgemental observation of whatever is, then sometimes that being observed will be real and appropriate distress. Acknowledging and accepting this can actually make one more aware of distress, distress that might have been avoided previously. Mindfulness can, therefore, be associated with the greater experience of “negative emotions”, but only in the short term. And here’s the key. Because in the long term it will indubitably contribute to better mental health, fewer and less intense unpleasant emotions and more and more intense pleasant ones.
And finally, even with an effective mindfulness practice, there will still be problems to be solved, things to be done. It’s been said before that it’s the thought that counts, but it’s just as true to note that actions speak louder than words. Becoming better at observing and becoming better at NOT judging our thoughts and emotions is one thing; following this, we still need to do whatever we need to do to live our lives and to address life’s problems as best we can.