Since “getting into” mindfulness, I get asked all the time. Soo…what is mindfulness? And how does it help?
The simplest way for me to understand mindfulness is that it provides a toolkit to help exercise the aspects of our brain that help us with emotional regulation and attention control. Many folks spend a lot of time exercising their physical bodies, but very little attention is paid to our mental bodies. Mindfulness is a way to help strengthen certain functions of our brain and nervous system so that we are not constantly on auto-pilot or in a reactive mode- strengthening our ability to pause, assess and then act.
So what is the toolkit?
Mindfulness as a practice is to tune the mind to the present-state- non-judgmentally with a sense of clarity. That is the definition that experts like Jon Kabat-Zinn or Mindful Schools provide. This practice can be done in everything we do- while we are cooking, walking, driving, playing. The practice can be done through activities that tune us into our present-state, or as an explict meditation practice, which be done for as little as a few minutes a day.
But what does it mean to tune into the present-state?
It means to practice focusing your mind on the whole experience of the current moment and only that- with an awareness of your external and internal senses. If thoughts arise in your head, which they naturally will, you observe them but you try to not get attached to the thoughts- you try not to pass positive or negative judgment on them. It’s not about removing the thoughts, but instead that you intentionally focus on what is your current present state and fully tune into that moment. As humans, in order to survive, we learn from the past, and plan for the future. That will always hold true, but for many of us, this process has gone into over-drive and has often put us in a reactive state. By exercising the mind to be more self-aware and conscious of the present moment, we strengthen the cognitive functions of our “upstairs brain”- which is the part of our brain that is responsible for emotional regulation, impulse and attention control. (The Whole-Brain Child, Daniel Siegel)
Mindfulness is not about repressing negative emotions such as anger or annoyance, or even saying that it will prevent you from things such as daydreaming, but it means you are aware of the choice you are making in these situations. As Megan Cowan from “Mindful Schools” mentions in one of her lectures, mindfulness is not “a forced layer of control.” It is about the “foundational level of choice.” We should not have expectations that mindfulness is the panacea to everything, and that once we and our littles start practicing that we will all of a sudden be “sitting Buddhas.” But what the research has shown for adults, and is starting to validate for children is that the practice strengthens our ability to take a pause as we are more aware of each moment. The ability to have a mindful moment, or take a pause, is a skill that can be developed over time, but these moments are what can provide people with enough space that may help them make different and potentially better decisions in their lives.