What actually is mindfulness?

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Salt columnist Andy Hix this week discusses what mindfulness is really about.

I can remember thinking that the idea of being ‘present’ meant nothing to me. A friend once told me I simply had to read a book called Be Here Now and I thought “What a meaningless title! Where else am I going to be?!”

It took me a little while to get my head around the fact that I’m often not here, now. I’m often time travelling. I fast forward into the future and think about what I might say in my next workshop, what I might do at the weekend or what I might have for dinner. I go back in time to that thing someone said that annoyed me and I replay it again and again and again. I think about how I’d like to edit the past and have done things differently. When I do that, I disconnect from what’s happening now.

I also have moments where I suddenly realise I’ve been on auto-pilot for the last goodness knows how long, and have got completely side-tracked from what I had been intending to do. I both literally and metaphorically follow a default route until I wake up and realise I’ve missed my turning by some distance.

We all do these things all the time. Mindfulness is about waking up to what’s actually happening, in the present moment, taking the controls and being intentional about what you’re doing. Choosing in each moment what you want to do and then doing it until it’s done. How many of us make a habit of doing that at work?!

One of the simplest ways of understanding it is to think of it as ‘awareness’. To eat mindfully means to be aware of the tastes, smells, biting, chewing, swallowing, feelings of hunger or fullness, what the food looks like, the thoughts you’re having while you’re eating and so on. Many people eat lunch whilst looking at their computer screen, which means they’re only very faintly aware of the eating process.

Being aware, by default means being in the present moment. You cannot be aware of the future, because it hasn’t happened yet and you can’t be aware of the past because it no longer exists. There is only one moment that it’s possible to be aware of, and that’s this one. Now.

It’s more than just awareness though. It’s also paying attention intentionally. If I’m eating my lunch in front of my emails I will of course me aware that I’m eating. But if I choose to focus my attention on the eating it will be a far richer experience than if certain sensations just appear on my attention radar, because nothing more interesting is happening or because it’s a particularly intense flavour.

Another important element of mindfulness is being non-judgemental. By not judging our experience as good or bad it helps us to be more present to it, more accepting of life as it is and therefore to appreciate it more. It’s not just about noticing what you’re experiencing, it’s also about being OK with it.

Meditation is the formal practice of training yourself to be more mindful. It’s not enough to understand that it’s a good idea in theory. It takes practise to increase how long you keep your attention in the present and to be non-judgemental.

The reward is a richer life because you experience more of it and you appreciate it as it is rather than always wanting it to be different. If that sounds good then don’t just read about it, start practising!

Andy Hix is director of zen at work, a London-based mindfulness consultancy. Get in touch with Andy for a free taster session at www.zenatwork.co.uk.

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Photo Credit: Darragh O Connor from flickr

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