Before I studied in depth the true meaning of mindfulness I considered the concept a bit too, as I like to call it, "fairy dust" for me. I have always connected more to hard, scientific fact than to free flowing theories. "How in the world," I thought, "is looking at the trees going to help a person handle stress better?" It seemed like a nice idea, but nothing beyond that. What I came to understand, however, is that mindfulness is in fact very straightforward, very evidence-based, and very beneficial.
The idea behind mindfulness is simple - bringing attention to the present by focusing on internal and external stimuli that are occurring in the current moment. Why is this important and how does it help? Well to start, when our minds are focusing on either the past or the future we often don't notice the positive things that are happening around us, leading to sadder or more negative feelings about the present.
On a deeper level, when we spend time within our minds in the past or future, we aren't allowing ourselves to truly FEEL our present emotions - which leads to a build-up of fear and continued avoidance. For example, an individual who is going through a lonely period in life after, say, the end of a significant relationship might spend time thinking about how nice it had been having a partner in the past and feeling nervous about a possible future without one. He or she might want to have a big glass of red wine or a couple beers to numb that painful loneliness they are feeling.
The theory of mindfulness would attempt to pull that person out of this numbing, reminiscing, and worrying about the future. Mindfulness would tell the person, "Sit with that feeling of loneliness. Close your eyes and let it wash over you. Feel it in your body - where does it hurt? Don't be afraid, this feeling won't last forever. Allow yourself to truly feel that pain, and when you do, it will pass and you will be okay."
The theory of mindfulness has a really beautiful idea behind it - well, at least I think it's beautiful - that a person doesn't need to fight quite so hard in life. Sometimes we feel we are under so much pressure to do so many things perfectly and to play so many roles at the same time in our lives that we might feel crushed by that weight. We might feel like we are drowning under the load we feel we have to carry. And, understandably, we might feel we have to work as hard to achieve relaxation and peace as to accomplish everything we get done throughout our day. Mindfulness tells us that's not the case.
As an example - let's take meditation. Meditation can be practiced in many different ways, but for our purposes let's say it's a combination of rhythmic deep breathing and the "clearing of one's mind." If you've attempted meditation in the past, you might have had an experience common to many beginners in meditation: that in the attempt to clear your mind you literally had more thoughts than you ever thought possible. Mindfulness tells us that during meditation we don't PUSH our thoughts away, or tell ourselves to "stop thinking" - that's too much work, and mostly has that counterproductive effect of creating more thoughts because of the nervousness it creates. I like to imagine thought bubbles floating above my head: we have a thought, we notice it, we wave hello, and we watch it pass. We don't linger on the thought nor do we push it away. Instead of focusing on the content of our thoughts, we focus only on noticing our thoughts and allowing them to pass without deep reflection of them, and we refocus on the rhythm of our breathing.
This sort of acceptance of our thoughts without fighting them nor paying too much attention to them is a much less aggressive and much more loving approach to working with our minds.
There is much, much more to say about mindfulness. I'll write more about it in my upcoming posts - I'll give you some simple mindfulness tools you can use to ease stress and anxiety.
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