Mindfulness is typically described as the awareness that arises by paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally.
This is a mouthful, and can be very daunting for people new to the practice.
I think mindfulness is better described as the state of simply “noticing things”.
Yes, just noticing things. It really is that simple. If you are noticing things, you are mindful of them. If you are not noticing things, you are not mindful of them.
So what are you supposed to notice?
Anything really: The clothes touching your skin, noises in the distance, bodily sensations, or the trees in your garden. You can even walk, talk, eat, drink and listen mindfully.
The breath is one of the most popular anchors. I once heard someone say… you’re life starts with a breath and ends with a breath; it must be important.
Is it really this simple?
This is the heart of mindfulness, but once you choose something to notice or observe, you are then required to focus on it.
Consider an example of a 10 minute mindfulness breath exercise. First you choose an object to observe (or notice), in this case the breath. Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out. Seems simple, but this can be more difficult than you think. At some stage, thoughts will come in the back door. They always do. And without realising, your mind will be wandering, usually about stories from the past or anticipated events in the future.
But don’t worry, this is the practice.
Once you notice that your mind is wandering, you go back to the breath.
You do this repeatedly. The idea is to catch yourself getting hi-jacked by your thoughts, and then to go back to your anchor.
This is both the practice, and essence, of mindfulness.
One other important point…
Don’t judge yourself negatively when you get lost in thought. As mindfulness expert Jack Kornfield once said, think of it like teaching a puppy how to walk. You don’t beat the puppy when he falls. You pick him up gently and start again. So be kind to yourself, and just go back to your anchor.
What I really want to talk about is a specific form of mindfulness called self-observation. I could easily have called it self-noticing, but that just doesn’t sound right.
This is simply the practice of mindfully observing (or noticing) your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations.
If this sounds abstract, stay with me for a moment.
If I was to ask you what sensations you feel in your body right now, it is likely that you will focus on a specific area. For example, how does your tongue feel right now? Does the brow above your eyes feel tense? How does your left knee feel?
Maybe you’re observing those areas right now? Maybe you even relaxed your brow?
You can also observe your thoughts. Think about when you’re hungry, you might say to yourself: What will I have to eat? You will find that you can observe your own thoughts about different kinds of food. It might be like watching them pass by on a conveyer belt.
And if I was to ask you how you are feeling right now, you might take a step back and observe how you feel.
The point is…
You can take an observer’s perspective of your thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations.
Metaphors describe this best…
Think of your thoughts and feelings as clouds
floating through the sky. Sometimes they’re dark and heavy, sometimes they’re
bright and light. But you are not the clouds. You are the blue sky observing
them pass by. And they will pass. Everything passes, good and bad.
Another nice metaphor involves leaves floating down a river. If you are experiencing a difficult thought, put it on a leaf and let it float away. More thoughts will come. They always do. So again, put them on the leaves and let them float down the river.
The take-away message here is…
You are not your thoughts, feelings or bodily sensations, or your body for that matter.
How can you be if they are always changing?
Do you feel different now than you did last week, or last month? Have you different thoughts today than when you were in school? Do you look different now than you did 10 years ago?
Obviously the answer is yes, but the same person is still looking in the mirror, the same person is thinking those thoughts, and the same person is feeling those feelings.
Thoughts, feelings and your physical body are only self-concepts, which is simply who you think you are. When I suffered from anxiety many years ago I used to call it “my anxiety”. I felt anxious all the time. This was my self-concept. I also turned to drugs to cope with “my anxiety”. I therefore looked like and thought of myself as an addict. These were the thinking and physical aspects of my self-concept.
So as far as I was concerned, I was an unhealthy looking anxious addict. And yes, this was a fairly accurate description, but it was not my true self, not who I really was.
Today I look different, I don’t suffer from anxiety, and I don’t think of myself as an addict.
But I am still the same person. I am the blue sky observing my thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations. I always was. I just didn’t know it.
Why is this important?
Firstly, mindful self-observation is a formidable tool. It has helped me not only to cope, but thrive in recovery, and power through any stressors or obstacles that have come my way.
When I feel anxious or stressed, I just observe the feelings and let them pass. When I have dark thoughts, I know they don’t define me, and I just let them pass. When I have uncomfortable bodily sensations, I just accept them as they are, and let them pass. The latter I’m still working on however.
This practice has provided me with a sense of detachment when stressors occur. There is now a space, and instead of reacting, I respond in the correct manner, most of the time 😉
I only recently started blogging, a venture that has brought me back into the world of social media. Blogging, social media, shares and likes go hand in hand after all.
As a keen observer of my thoughts and feelings, this has given me an intriguing insight into the pull of social media.
And make no mistake about it…
It is a phenomenal, powerful and emotional pull, especially when there is something on the line.
It honestly reminds me of the grip that heroin used to have on me. Same neural mechanisms by the way (i.e. dopamine), but I’m going to do a separate science blog on that in case anyone is interested.
Over the last few weeks I’ve had a birds eye view as “the voice in my head” has been screaming at me to check social media at every opportunity.
“Check Facebook to see if you have more comments.”
“Check your email.”
“Check Twitter to see if you got more likes.”
“Check the website to see how many shares you have.”
I’m going to interrupt here, because as I was sitting in a coffee shop writing the line above, it triggered a thought about how I can orchestrate more shares. I must have been gone for at least a minute before I realised.
Luckily for me, practicing mindfulness brings me back quicker, and provides me with a tool so I don’t always listen to the voice – I can just observe it.
But I’ll be honest…
I’ve been very surprised by how many times I’ve decided to ignore my practice and feed my ego!
I consider myself to be very mentally sound, and increasingly self-aware. I am also one of the happiest and most positive people I know. I’ve developed this mind-set through a variety of psychological techniques; the foundations of which is mindful self-observation.
What I’m trying to say is…
If I’m being yanked around so easily by social media, what chance has a lonely and vulnerable teenager got?
This is a VERY big issue.
I’m not saying don’t use social media. This is not possible. It reminds me of a similar problem with food addiction. You can abstain from alcohol and drugs, but you can’t not eat.
You don’t have to use social media, but tell that to a 14-year old kid.
So what can we do?
We need to promote the power mindfulness.
Research shows that it reduces stress, over-thinking, and emotional reactivity. Other benefits include increased focus, attention and self-awareness.
Neuroscientific research shows that it changes the structure and function of the brain. The fear centre of the brain, the amygdala, has actually been shown to shrink through mindfulness practice in as little as 8 weeks.
Mindfulness is indeed a powerful instrument… the evidence is there.
And with the dawn of social media, it is needed now more than ever.
Maybe it’s time that we start using it?
I write regularly for A Lust for Life, but feel free to follow my articles on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn. You will also find a collection of all my articles on publishing platforms Thrive Global and Medium.