“Mindfulness” is a word that’s gotten a lot of attention lately. It sounds good, it’s usually accompanied by calming images that look very appealing, and most of us accept on principle that mindfulness must be a good thing. If you have a sense that mindfulness is something that you need more of — but you’re a little sheepish to admit that you’re not entirely sure exactly what it is — don’t worry. You are so not alone.
You may have heard of mindfulness in the context of some other concepts — yoga, meditation, therapeutic strategies, and relaxation skills — and that’s because mindfulness really does have a place in a variety of different approaches to stress management, focus, and wellness. At its most basic level, mindfulness is a self-chosen, self-directed way of thinking that allows us to disengage from stressors that seem all-consuming.
Yes, mindfulness is a wonderful thing! Let’s take a moment to reflect on what mindfulness really means — and also what it isn’t — and then consider how incorporating a practice of mindfulness into our lives can be a really powerful and pragmatic life tool.
The best way to understand mindfulness is to break the word down into its component parts. The word mindful is literally a combination of the words “mind” and “full”. To be “mindful” is to deliberately pay attention to or fill one’s mind with a specific point of focus. That’s why mindfulness meditations always have some point or object … the breath, a mantra or phrase, an image, a particular part of the body, etc. When we engage in mindfulness practices, we deliberately and purposefully fill our mind with one point of focus.
Just as we can focus our attention on anything, we can also fill our minds with anything we choose. Mindfulness is a kind of exercise in focus. Mindfulness is different than focus in the sense that the point of focus has been identified expressly for the purpose of creating relaxation, stillness, soothing, and calm.
Often, we become hyper focused on a stressor or problem. It might seem as if — and you might have yourself saying to another person — “I just can’t stop thinking about______!” This can feel very true when we’re preoccupied or overwhelmed.
And to some degree, this is true: we’re not wired to stop thinking in general, let alone about something stressful. If we could stop thinking, something would be terribly wrong. Our brains are designed to think. A much more practical and viable alternative to stopping thinking about something stressful is to engage in mindfulness, or the deliberate practice of focusing our attention on one thing so that it does not become engaged by another (the stressor).
Here’s an example of how mindfulness works when it comes to “stopping thinking” about something stressful or upsetting:
Let’s pretend you “can’t stop thinking” about something someone at work said to you during a meeting. You feel hurt and disregarded, and it seems like you can’t stop replaying the whole thing in your head over and over, and getting upset all over again.
The replay of this stressor has a number of elements. One is the visual memory: the setting, who was there, etc. Another element is words — the words that the person said and maybe what you said in response (or didn’t say but wish you had). Your “mind is full” of the images and words that make up this event.
Minds are a little bit like record players; they can only play one track at a time. Similarly, you can only replay one set of words and images at a time. If you mindfully focus (fill your mind) on a neutral or soothing phrase (that you read, verbally repeat, or write), you literally cannot focus on the words of the stressful conversation. It doesn’t matter if the phrase is a bible verse, a nursery rhyme, a Sanskrit mantra, or a Clint Eastwood movie line … your mind will not be able to play those words and the words from the upsetting event. If you deliberately work to mentally picture a relaxing beach or patio, or focus on an actual picture, you cannot simultaneously picture the conference table from the meeting at the same time. Mindfulness is the deliberate activity of filling one’s mind with pleasant, soothing, or neutral sensory input so that no room exists to be filled by the most recent stressor.
If there is a tricky part of mindfulness, it’s deciding to do it. There’s a part of us that — no matter how much we may say we want to stop thinking about the stressor — doesn’t in fact want to stop. Most of us get a slightly addictive and of course completely false sense of control by hyper focusing on a problem, even though doing so makes us miserable.
Try it. Next time you find yourself obsessing about an unpleasant interaction you had with someone, just pause and start saying the word “sunshine” to yourself out loud, while picturing a sun-drenched landscape. This is mindfully focusing on sunshine. And there will be no room for any distressing thoughts.