Mindfulness involves consciously bringing awareness to your here-and-now experience with openness, interest, and receptiveness. It is an effective way to reduce stress, increase self-awareness, and handle painful thoughts and feelings.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, a world authority on the use of mindfulness training in the management of psychological difficulties, defines it as: "Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally." Mindfulness is about waking up, connecting with ourselves, and appreciating the fullness of each moment of life. It is a profound way to enhance psychological and emotional resilience, and increase life satisfaction.

Basic principle: Your distress is caused by the attention you give it

When you are distressed your mind is naturally drawn to whatever is distressing. Think of it like a magnet - when you are sad you tend to think sad thoughts, and your mind will be naturally drawn to find examples of all the things that make you sad. You may even focus on a particularly sad thing that has happened to you and spend a lot of time thinking about how sad this is. We call this ruminating, and we know this makes us feel worse. When we are depressed we spend a lot of time ruminating on depressing thoughts, causing us to spiral down into deeper and deeper depression. This is not only true of sadness and depression; it also applies to worry, anger and guilt. The mind is naturally drawn to the things that trouble us most - your distress is caused by the attention you give it.

The things we spend time ruminating over are usually things that have happened in the past, or things that we worry may happen in the future. In doing so, we miss out on the present moment. The mindfulness approach to dealing with distress is about letting go of distressing thoughts by refocusing on the present moment. This is not the same as someone telling you to "just not think about it" or "don't worry." With mindfulness we acknowledge that which is distressing us, but we try not to cling on to it or engage with it. Instead we acknowledge that our mind has wandered from the present moment to a distressing thought, we let it go, and refocus on the present moment.

Teflon mind

One helpful way of practicing mindfulness is to use your imagination to visualise your mind as made of Teflon - like the non-stick coating of a frying pan. Acknowledge your distressing thought, and imagine it sliding from your mind, like a fried egg sliding from a Teflon frying pan.

The puppy dog

Another helpful analogy is to use your imagination to visualise your mind as a puppy dog. The puppy dog is curious and naturally distracted by many things, in the same way that our minds are naturally drawn to distressing things. Now, we don't get angry at the puppy dog for trying to wander off to whatever is drawing his attention. We know that's what puppy dogs do! Instead we gently pull the puppy dog back to where we want it to be, knowing full well that the puppy will try to wander off again. Mindfulness practice is just like that: noticing your mind has wandered, and gently bringing it back to the present. We don't get angry or annoyed with ourselves when we notice or mind has wandered again, because we know our mind is like a puppy dog, and we gently bring it back to where we want it to be.

Let's practice…

Mindful breathing exercise 

Sit upright in your chair. Have your feet on the ground. Uncross your arms and let your hands lie gently on your lap. Close your eyes…
Now focus on your breathing. Notice the sensation of your breath coming in and out of your lungs. Just sit there for a moment and focus on your breath…
Before long, or maybe even straight away, your mind will wander off (like the puppy dog!). Your mind may wander off to thinking "why am I doing this"…there may be some judgement "this is silly, boring, difficult"…your mind may wander off to thinking about what's for dinner tonight…your mind may wander off to thinking about something that has happened in the past, or worry about something that may happen in the future…
Just acknowledge that your mind has wandered. You may want to "Teflon mind" the thought…let it go…and refocus on your breathing, knowing that your mind will wander off again...Just sit for a moment, focusing on your breathing, noticing your mind wander and gently bringing it back time-and-again to re-focusing on your breathing.


Mindful Living

The above example is what I call formal mindfulness practice, and if you think it sounds a bit like meditation, you are right, it is. But mindfulness is more than meditating for a few minutes each day (although doing so will help you become more mindful). Mindfulness is about practicing being present in the here-and-now throughout your life. When you are going about your daily life engaging in tasks such as having a shower, eating your dinner, washing up etc., ask yourself where your mind habitually goes. Most of us realise that in those ordinary daily tasks our mind wanders off to thinking about something else other than the task itself. We perform many tasks throughout the day on autopilot, not giving the experience a second thought. When we are on autopilot our mind usually wanders off to something in our past or imagining some future event. Being in autopilot mode is of course useful at times; but ask yourself how much of your life are you on autopilot? Think about bringing some balance in your life between the moments you live on autopilot, and the moments of full awareness to the present moment. Mindful living is about making time in our day to participate in whatever we do with full awareness, noticing that our mind has wandered and gently bringing it back again. This doesn't mean you shouldn't worry about things, but when you do worry, choose to worry, make time for it, worry mindfully…then let it go.

Here are a few simple ways to step out of automatic pilot and start practicing mindfulness in your day-to-day life:

  • When you wake in the morning get out of bed very consciously and slowly. Take 5-30 minutes to be quiet first thing in the morning. Gaze out of the window, listen to the sounds of nature, focus on your hot coffee, or take a slow walk.
  • When showering or brushing your teeth, stay very focused on the sensations, tastes and movements.
  • Go for a walk and pay attention to your movements and breathing; walk slowly. Or pay attention to your surroundings, taking in every small detail of the scenery.
  • Eat a meal slowly and silently, without the distraction of talking, reading or TV. Pay attention to colour, smell, taste and texture of food.
  • Decide not to play the radio while driving and just be with yourself.
  • Use everyday cues in your environment as reminders to 'center' yourself e.g. the phone ringing, the click when you fasten your seatbelt in a car, sitting down at the computer.
  • Stop and look carefully at a flower, a tree, the sky.
  • Stop and consciously touch something feeling textures, temperature and movement.

The benefits of mindfulness

Practicing mindfulness helps you to:

  • be fully present, here and now
  • become aware of what you're avoiding
  • become more connected to yourself, to others and to the world around you
  • increase self-awareness
  • become less disturbed by and less reactive to unpleasant experiences
  • learn the distinction between you and your thoughts
  • have more direct contact with the world, rather than living through your thoughts
  • learn that everything changes; that thoughts and feelings come and go like the weather
  • have more balance, less emotional volatility
  • experience more calm and peacefulness
  • develop self-acceptance and self-compassion

"Mindfulness is about being fully awake in our own lives. It is about perceiving the exquisite vividness of each moment. We feel more alive. We also gain immediate access to our inner resources for insight, transformation and healing". Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Further Reading

Mindfulness: a practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world (2011) by Mark Williams and Danny Penman.