What is mindfulness? A simple approach.
What is in a name? Mindfull or aware?
There have been many definitions of what, in fact, mindfulness is. It has become an increasingly popular topic across social media and so, I write this article with the intention of clarifying my own interpretation of mindfulness and why it is a meaningful practice to incorporate into recovery.
This article explores a range of important concepts in mindfulness and how I use aspects of mindfulness to help gain control in both acute and chronic injuries suffered by sportspeople as well as everyday individuals. The renowned author Daniel Siegel considers the term Mindful awareness as a way of being, elaborating that it actually does not involve much doing at all. While Jon Kabat Zing defines Mindfulness as “The awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally” (Kabat-Zinn, 2013).
With such ambiguity used to describe the term, it becomes a tough task trying to define exactly what mindfulness is. Other terms and concepts that are closely related to mindfulness include presencing, meditation, consciousness and awareness.
While the concept was born from the teachings of many Eastern spiritual and religious figures, it has since become a popular technique in the West, utilised by sports psychologists (and a range of other health professionals, across a variety of different disciplines) to allow athletes to get in the ‘zone’ and improve their focus and mental abilities. The benefits of mindfulness have been known and taught by practitioners across the globe for centuries prior to its introduction into mainstream medicine.
From my perspective, mindfulness is – simply put – being aware of the present and focused on each aspect of the present moment. It is about being aware of each minute thought and action as it is being experienced in the ‘here and now’. It is about being aware of your own physiology of the present moment. By that, I mean staying focused on our basic functions like heart rate, breathing, any tightness or pressure in the body and a host of other possible sensations. It is also about being aware of society and others at any present moment as well as the interaction these things have with our own physiology and thoughts.
Daniel Siegel points to be aware of a variety of processes, while thoughtfully considering each process or sensation. He calls it the wheel of awareness. I like this approach, in which a variety of stimuli both internal and external to oneself are considered. One problem that I often see with mindfulness is that those using it become so aware of their perceptions and feelings that they forget that mindfulness is more about doing something with these thoughts (typically in a creative way) than it is about filling your head with more thoughts, which is counterproductive. The danger of ‘cluttering’ your mind is that it can ultimately make you more anxious or stressed than when you started.
What do I do with this awareness?
So, initially, I start with getting clients to be aware of the variety of sensations, thoughts and processes they are experiencing. From there, I encourage them to begin making decisions based on those processes; what they are telling us about the present moment and what that will mean for the next moment. It is not just about being aware but using all the information gathered by that awareness to inform our actions, decisions or thoughts for the next moment. It is about awareness followed through into action or decision which you can then assess the successfulness of. It is a bit of a feedback loop, in which you try to break your normal default cycle. Sometimes it might even mean our course of action is inaction. An important point to remember is that an action that could follow might, in fact, doing nothing.
Mindfulness in Action
First, imagine someone cutting you off in traffic. You have had a stressful day, you have a headache, you are still mulling over some minor decisions you have made through your day and now this person has cut you off. The process of mindfulness is about the awareness of your thoughts at the moment. This awareness will ‘tune you in’ to your bodily reactions at that moment, allowing you to use that awareness to make decisions thoughtfully, not reactively, moving your actions away from your mind’s default response. So, with all the stress you are experiencing in this scenario, you might automatically give in to your default response by getting mad and reacting to the situation. You might even speed up and cut the other driver off. The situation may even escalate to the level of physical violence or worse, another terrible scenario.
Mindfulness enables you to recognise the sensations and feelings which cause this response and allows you to break away from negative default behaviours. By being aware of your breathing changes as they happen, you can be conscious of building anger. From here, an appropriate response to these nuanced physiological reactions might be “wow, I’m stressed and breathing badly, which is making this situation worse, I need to control my breathing and relax my shoulders.” Another response could be “I control and can change my thoughts. That was a frustrating experience, but I am choosing to let it go.” This is a mindful and measured reaction to a scenario, prompted by a response to your awareness rather than a default reactive action. The outcome of a simple act could be very different. Admittedly, this is an extreme example but in its simplest form, this is a good explanation of the practical application of mindfulness for everyone in their daily life.
There are many ways you can work towards achieving mindfulness and it can be attained through more than just meditation and breathing. It is as simple as making yourself aware and responding in ways that differ from your default response.
This is just a glimpse at how I apply mindfulness techniques in a very simple manner, before building on these foundations with more formal practice to achieve greater awareness and flexibility in our response to different circumstances. This flexibility of response is vital to success in this stressful and fast-paced world we live in.
KEEP IT SIMPLE
If you would like to know more about mindfulness practices, please don’t hesitate to get in touch and find out more about booking an appointment. Finally, If you are trying mindfulness at home, remember: Keep it simple. Mindfulness is learning in action and does not necessarily have to be a meditation on its own (though meditation can form an important part of learning and practising). For more helpful information or tips about cultivating mindfulness, I would suggest reading Daniel Siegel’s ‘Aware’ and Jon Kabat-Zinn’s ‘Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness’.
Siegel, D. (2018). Aware. Melbourne: Scribe Publications.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2013). Full catastrophe living. New York, NY: Bantam Books.
Written by Ian Harris ( Musculoskeletal Physiotherapist)