Mental Matters: Practicing Mindfulness

Mindfulness has reached uber fad status in the field of mental health. It also happens to be one of those words we throw around a lot without ever really defining. Fortunately, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s working definition of mindfulness is pretty solid: “Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally.” Basically, the opposite of mindfulness is sleepwalking.

Despite what you may have heard, mindfulness is not a particularly “spiritual” practice. You’re simply noticing what’s going on around and inside you in the present moment without judging it. And if you notice judgmental thoughts coming up — for example, “Only an idiot would think something like this” — you just notice those, too. Instead of the usual human experience of being blindfolded by a constant stream of judgments, worries, regrets, emotions, and conditioned responses, once you become mindful you start to actually see and participate in the world around you.

Like any other skill, mindfulness can be developed through practice. The point of formal sitting meditation isn’t to have amazing mystical visions or to show how spiritual you are, but to develop your ability to notice whatever arises in the present moment without getting swept away by it. Like reps in the gym, every time you notice your mind has wandered, you simply come back to the present moment. Over and over again, you notice a thought or feeling or body sensation has hooked you, and you let it go and come back to the now.

Just like thousands of reps in the gym makes you better at normal life stuff like carrying your groceries or taking the stairs, formal meditation practice makes you better at remaining present in day-to-day life without getting swept away by thoughts or feelings. The same applies to mindful movement practices like yoga, Tai Chi, or walking meditation.

One pretty major benefit of mindfulness is that not getting swept away by thoughts, feelings, and conditioned responses is awesome for your mental health. So many mental illnesses and relationship issues are characterized by a total lack of presence. Thoughts and feelings often push us around without us even realizing it’s happening, and we walk through life as a bundle of bad habits and conditioned responses. If we want to start getting free of any of that, it’s important to start slowing down and paying attention.

The other thing, is that when we’re caught up in our heads all the time, we fail to notice just how incredibly beautiful and miraculous life is. We don’t have to move to an ashram in India or wait until we die to find paradise; it’s been right in front of us all along, in the sound of birds singing or snow crunching underfoot, in the eyes of a loved one, in the joyful dance of every atom in our body. In order to see it, all we have to do is open our eyes.

While mindfulness is an incredibly transformative practice, it should be noted that a major block to mindfulness practice is trauma. The wounds of overwhelming experience or broken relationship can derail even the most dedicated and disciplined mindfulness practice. In this case, I highly recommend that you seek professional trauma therapy alongside your mindfulness practice.

John Roche is a therapist in Kitchener Waterloo.