On being present: what is mindfulness really?

adjective: zen

peaceful and calm.

“she is kind and relaxed with a very zen energy about her”

We could use many words to describe 2020 – chaotic, unpredictable or the fan-favourite unprecedented. I highly doubt many of us would choose words relating to peace, calm or zen. And yet, in the midst of all the craziness, zen is exactly how a friend chose to describe me. As we were discussing our future plans (or lack thereof), I have to admit I found myself with an unusual sense of calm. Unusual only in the sense that calm was not a place I find it easy to get to. I didn’t have an answer in the moment as to how I’d reached this point, but it did get me thinking.

I’ve spent a great deal of the last two years cultivating mindfulness and 2020 was a year when all those efforts were put to the test. That’s not to say I had an easy ride. Mindfulness did not make me immune to the stress or anxiety many of us experienced. It was never meant to. It simply provided a toolkit to find a sense of peace and calm even in the midst of chaos.

As we enter a new year with many of the same struggles under our belt, it felt like the right moment to reflect upon but also share my experience with mindfulness. I’ll provide my answer to the often asked question ‘what is mindfulness’, explain how mindfulness and meditation are not actually the same thing, and give a brief overview of my journey into a more mindful headspace.

What is mindfulness?

There are endless experts, books and internet resources dedicated to answering this very question. Many of them provide different answers and definitions. The trouble with so many different answers is you can end up confused and unable to decide which path to take. When it comes to defining mindfulness, I think it is helpful to find a definition that you feel you can fulfil.

For me, mindfulness is the continued practice of being present. Of maintaining awareness in the given moment and not allowing it to float to the past, future or to anything currently beyond your own control. It’s natural for our minds to wander but it’s also possible to stop them from getting too far. Think of it like the moment you realise you’ve been walking or driving on auto-pilot and taken a few wrong turns. All you have to do is find your way back to the route you planned.

“[Mindfulness] is a way of being, rather than merely a good idea or a clever technique, or a passing fad…because it is a practice rather than merely a good idea, its cultivation is a process, one that of necessity unfolds and deepens over time.”

Mark Williams & Danny Penman

Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World

Meditation is one of the most well-known mindfulness techniques, but it is not the only way to practice mindfulness. Other practices include yoga and tai chi, practicing gratitude or mindful activities such as eating and showering. You may like to use one or many of these practices to continually carve out a space for calm and tranquillity in your life.

To keep it simple, here are 4 elements I believe are essential in cultivating mindfulness and that I use to guide my own practices:

  1. Mindfulness is the quality of being present: trying to maintain full awareness in any given moment and keeping your thoughts/feelings focused on the present as well (rather than past or future concerns).
  2. Mindfulness is about compassion for yourself: you will never be perfect at mindfulness and that is perfectly okay. Instead, treat yourself with compassion whether that means skipping a day of meditation because you are tired or giving up on practices that don’t work for you.
  3. Mindfulness is about both discipline and fun: choose practices you enjoy so that you want to do them regularly rather than need to.
  4. Mindfulness is about you as an individual: there is no one way to practice mindfulness which can seem overwhelming but is actually about finding your own path. Test out and use as many practices as you like. Keep the ones that work for you, discard the ones that don’t.

Understanding meditation

To many, the words mindfulness and meditation are interchangeable. That was something I believed for quite a long time. But the truth is they are different, if highly interconnected. If mindfulness were a tall tower, meditation is just one level. However, meditation is often seen as the ground level. A place where you build the foundations for your mindful journey.

There are also different types of meditation you can try from mindful eating exercises to traditional Buddhist meditations. One of the most recognised forms of meditation is the Buddhist method, known as satiupathana. Roughly translated, this refers to keeping your attention inside. Meditation at its core, no matter how you practice it, is about the act of paying attention.

What are you paying attention to? The most direct answer is everything. But when you’re new to meditation that is hardly a direct answer at all. In my experience, there are three phases to meditative mindfulness – a focus on the physical, on the mental and finally on the interactions these share.

In the physical, we pay attention to our bodies. Our breathing, any tensions we hold, if we feel cold or warm.

In the mental, we pay attention to our emotions. We come to understand how fleeting they are and how quickly our mind can bring forth a memory or idea which impacts our emotional selves.

In the interactions phase, we can bring these attentions together. Does stress make your shoulders tense up? Does a sore back or PMS cramps make you feel tired and irritable?

At first it may feel unnatural to focus so hard and your mind will get bored and begin to wander. This is the process. Each time it leaves your focus point, try to bring it back. Like training muscles in the gym, with practice your brain can learn to focus.

In meditation, you are supposed to closely observe your mind and body, witness the ceaseless arising and passing of all your feelings, and realise how pointless it is to pursue them. When the pursuit stops, the mind becomes very relaxed, clear and satisfied. All kinds of feelings go on arising and passing – joy, anger, boredom, lust – but once you stop craving particular feelings, you can just accept them for what they are. You live in the present moment instead of fantasising about what might have been.

Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

As you get used to this feeling of focus, you should find yourself better able to exist as an observer of your own mind. Watching physical sensations and emotions flow in and out like waves crashing over the sand. When our brains have learned this habit, we are able to ground ourselves in the present moment. We are able to look toward the future or think on the past without becoming lost. This feeling, whether achieved through meditation or other mindful practices, is how we create zen.

If you’re still feeling cross-eyed, Headspace has a nice overview of mindfulness and where meditation fits into that mix. There are also two Netflix shows that may be helpful to get started:

The mindfulness episode of Vox’s ‘The Mind Explained’

The new Headspace guided meditation series

Learning to be mindful: my journey

The most important things I hope you understand about my journey are how long it has taken and that it will never truly be done. We are not mindless one day and mindful the next. The more we practice, the easier it becomes.

Like many of us, I’d heard of and attempted mindfulness practices many times before. I’d been to yoga (though I treated it as exercise) and attempted guided meditations by following the sound of someone’s voice to a happy place or perhaps the beach. What I’d never done was dedicated myself, day after day, to being mindful. That journey began in therapy a few years ago.

It started with the idea ‘you are not your thoughts’. The concept is quite basic – just because your brain has a thought, doesn’t mean you have to engage with it. It’s one of the definitions of mindfulness where you take control of your thought patterns. It’s also at the heart of Buddhist meditation where the idea is to exist alongside your thoughts and emotions rather than at their mercy.

If you experience sadness without craving that the sadness go away, you continue to feel sadness but you do not suffer from it. There can actually be richness in the sadness. If you experience joy without craving that the joy linger and intensify, you continue to feel joy without losing your peace of mind.

Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

I was also recommended a book on mindfulness which includes an 8-week meditation course. This 8-week commitment to the practice of meditation, and with it mindfulness, was the first time I’d truly dedicated myself to changing my thought patterns. I decided to keep a journal to track each practice as you were supposed to practice twice per day, 6-days per week. Looking back on that journal, here’s two things I learned in my first dedicated mindfulness practice:

  1. Meditating is hard
  2. It’s not about perfection

More than once I wrote after my practice, ‘this is hard’. One day I simply put, ‘I f***ing hate this meditation. Moving on.’ Like most things worth doing, meditation and mindfulness are difficult. At least until you get used to them. If you asked me now if mindfulness were easy, I would say yes. Back then, it would be a hard no. I think when we complete a goal we too often wipe away the effort it took to reach the top. So, if you’re struggling to commit to or enjoy meditation, I was too.

Remember how I said it was a twice per day, 6-days per week practice? That did not happen. I skipped meditations often enough and it still proved to be a rewarding experience for me. The one caveat I will say is I only skipped them for what I deemed ‘good reasons’. ‘I can’t be bothered’ didn’t count, but ‘I’m far too tired and want to go straight to sleep’ did. As mentioned earlier, finding a balance between discipline and fun is essential, so too is deciding what works for you and what doesn’t.

After 8-weeks of (somewhat) committed practice, I finally felt I had a grasp on meditation and its benefits. I continued to use meditation whenever I needed it (like struggling to fall asleep) but I also started experimenting with other mindful practices.

What has mindfulness taught me?

I learned about my body

One of the things I realised almost straight away through meditation was that my body was always sending signals. It felt different when it held tension compared to when it was tired or anxious. Until I turned my focus to those signals, they were in the dark.

I learned about my instincts

It’s easy to focus on your body during meditation. It’s far harder as you go about your day-to-day. Even though my body was sending me signals, my instinct was to ignore them. If I couldn’t make time or space to adjust it was easier to carry on. Mindfulness has helped me to change this pattern simply by being more aware of it.

I learned about yoga

Yoga has become my favourite way to be mindful. Being able to move and stretch while practising makes me feel grounded. I can also practice for longer doing yoga than I can with seated meditation. While I’d done yoga classes before, it wasn’t until I had an understanding of mindfulness that I understood how to use it to ground myself.

Yoga can be exercise. It can focus on muscle and core strength. But so much of it is about focus. Focus on your breath, on your posture, on your hands or feet holding weight on the mat. If you come to the mat expecting to burn calories, I feel you may be missing the point. When I released the expectation that yoga was a workout, I gained my favourite form of mindfulness.

I recently completed a 30-day yoga playlist titled Home by Yoga with Adriene. If you’re looking for a place to get more acquainted with mindful yoga, I would highly recommend this journey.

In the end…

My mindfulness journey couldn’t have come at a better time with the uncertainty 2020 threw our way. It’s a long road I am still on and I’m grateful to myself for taking the first steps. It’s too early to know if or how 2021 will be different, but it’s never too late to begin your own mindfulness journey. My advice would be to commit. Even when it’s hard and tiring. Even when there’s far more exciting things to be doing. One day you’ll look back and thank yourself, I’m almost certain.

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