Mindfulness? What’s the Big Deal?
“Mindfulness.” It’s a fuzzy buzzword we’re hearing a lot these days, easy to mentally categorize along with “yoga,” “meditation,” and “vegan.”
But wait. If you strip away the trendiness, mindfulness at its core is a form of ancient wisdom, a way of being in the world that is both intentional and nonreactive.
There are generally two definitions of mindfulness, according to The Oxford Dictionary. The first is “the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something.” The second, which we see more fitting in a therapeutic setting, is “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.” Merriam Webster defines mindfulness this way: “the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental (italics mine) state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis.”
In other words, one way of being mindful is by being present in the moment. A more nuanced definition means being able to stay in the present and observe our thoughts, feelings, and sensations as they pass by, like watching clouds morph on a windy day.
There is therapeutic value in both types of mindfulness. Both mental states have value, and both require a certain level of intention. Unless you’re a baby (more on that in a minute), you don’t just wake up one day intensely mindful of the world around you. It takes concentration and intent.
What Babies Can Teach Us
Christine Muenz, a child-development specialist in Kirkland, Washington, notes that infants typically cycle through four stages of alertness: quiet alert, active alert, crying, and sleeping. Unless a child is asleep or distressed, chances are good they are in a state of mindfulness. The quiet-alert stage, often after eating, is when they are calm and hyper alert. They are intensely in the moment. Their brains are like sponges, and they are seeing, listening, smelling, absorbing every little detail in the environment around them. They are mindful.
A baby isn’t distracted by a to-do list, bills to pay, a buzzing cell phone, or work that has to be done. For most of their waking hours, babies are naturally in the moment. What this can teach us is that being mindful is an ability that we come by naturally. We just have to remember how.
Kicking It Up a Notch
The second definition of mindfulness is one of paying attention to our thoughts, feelings, and sensations, without judgment. Essentially, we are thinking about our thoughts. We are one step removed, and this space allows us to observe our thoughts, feelings, or sensations without reacting viscerally to them. It is a nonreactive, observant state, like watching events unfolding from above, on a balcony. When you don’t react to circumstances, but are instead able to view them dispassionately, then you are able to choose how you respond. There is tremendous power in being able to choose how (or if) you want to respond to any given circumstance.
What does this look like in real life? Let’s look for a moment at how mindfulness can be used to help deal with anxiety, for example.
Imagine there is a situation looming that causes you to feel anxiety. For many people, public speaking is terrifying because of the anxious dread they feel in even contemplating having to speak before a crowd. If you were to prepare for a public speech by being mindful, you would work on allowing yourself to feel the rising fear and tension without resistance or struggle. Like watching a boat sail across the water until it is out of sight, you allow the thoughts to come and go, without judgment or fear. “Oh, there’s that thought again.”
The Buddhist tradition speaks of “inviting your fears to tea,” which robs them of their power. In this space of being mindful, you stop resisting the thoughts, and in doing so you defang them. They become harmless. Ideas or thoughts that were once terrifying lose their potent grip. What you once saw as a poisonous snake now looks like a garden slug—kind of gross, but not scary.
Being fully present, in the moment, yet not reacting to the vicissitudes of daily life is the goal. Remember, as Pema Chodron says,
“You are the sky. Everything else is just weather.”
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