What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness seems to be a current ‘buzz word’. So what’s all the fuss about, does it work (and for what?!), and how do you do it?

Firstly, yes, let’s fuss. It works. Much research shows that mindfulness is an evidence-based approach at the forefront of psychology. There’s extensive evidence of its effectiveness and many practitioners are responding to this and incorporating mindfulness strategies into their treatment approaches.

In some regards mindfulness is new and radically different. In other regards, it is an ancient and traditional technique. It’s radically different because modern mindfulness teachings don’t advocate that we challenge and dispute our thoughts, that we override or replace negative thoughts with positive ones, or that if we simply believe something long and hard enough we’ll magically make it happen. Rather, mindfulness teaches us about what is normal behaviour for our minds. That it is normal that we criticise, judge, plan, worry, ruminate, and engage in ‘doomsday forecasting’. It’s just what our minds do – both to keep us safe and so that we fit in – to maintain our survival. The approach is radically different because it teaches us how to stop fighting this. To relax into it. To be ok with it. And to take important action in our life, to make it more rich and meaningful, in spite of all of this.

It’s an ancient and traditional technique because of its history. While many believe that mindfulness stems from Buddhism, it is in fact older than that and Buddha claimed to have learned mindfulness from practices such as Judaism or Daoism over 4000 years ago.

Modern techniques, in particular the model used in Surf Your Mind retreats, are not attributed to Buddhism. Rather, it is a modern, secular, and scientific method from behaviourism.

FEEL your clothes against your skin

Most importantly, research has shown time and again, that it works. That it helps people to find happiness now, while working towards their life goals – rather than waiting until those goals are attained. It shows that people have found benefits from being able to better handle stress, pain, anxiety, panic attacks, fear, depression, and undue self-criticism. Mindfulness helps organisations to run more effectively, sports people to achieve their goals, and couples to be more loving.

Growing evidence shows that various forms of mindfulness interventions are effective for treating mental illness. One such intervention, known as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) has been shown to be effective in treating depression - as effective as medication. Various anxiety disorders have also responded favourably to mindfulness-based treatment approaches and online treatment programs are readily available to help people. Mindfulness-based interventions are also beneficial for general psychological health and stress management in those with medical and psychiatric illnesses - as well as in healthy individuals.

bring your awareness to your SENSE of smell for a few seconds

but what is it?

There's no single agreed definition of what mindfulness is, however there are a couple of useful ones. Mindfulness has been described as - 

…paying attention with flexibility, openness, and curiosity.
— russ harris
…paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.
— jon kabat-zinn

So, being 'mindful' is a way of being aware of what's going on around you; of giving something your full attention whether that be a conversation, a chore, an activity, or any type of task, without being 'clouded' or distracted by internal judgements or criticisms.

Let's have an example to make this a bit clearer. Imagine yourself in any social setting where you’ve felt self-conscious about what you’ve been wearing – where you’ve felt underdressed/overdressed or out of place for some reason. You may recall that you were likely more focused on your internal experience – your thoughts about the situation e.g. “people will judge me as …” or your feelings e.g. embarrassment or anxiousness – rather than on your external experience – e.g. engaging in conversation with someone you know. When this happens we say that you’ve been caught up in your thoughts, or ‘hooked’. Once we get hooked our behaviour usually changes – we start to feel uncomfortable, we may withdraw from people, and we may try to distract ourselves from what’s going on in our bodies and our heads by doing things which make us feel better in the short term – drinking alcohol, lighting a cigarette, biting our nails, distracting ourselves with a mobile phone, or leaving the room. However, in the longer term these actions/solutions are likely to have taken us further away from what we were probably hoping to get from attending the social event – being social, meeting new people, engaging in conversations with interesting people, and having fun.

Mindfulness provides us with countless things we can do to deal with this situation differently. Acting mindfully in such a situation would assist us to 'ground' ourselves - to shift our focus from our internal ‘judging mind' to what is in front of us, to observing the room around us, to engaging in conversations with interest, while being open to and curious about our internal experience, rather than controlled by it.

look around you and NOTICE 5 things you can see

Mindfulness strategies can be used in any situation where we find that we are engaging in behaviour that takes us further away from, rather than closer to, our goals and values. Mindfulness assists us to get present. Most importantly, there are many situations in which being present can assist us to live a more rich and meaningful life.

mindfulness is just meditation, right?

Yes and no. It's a common misconception that mindfulness equals meditation. Actually, there are various types of meditation and mindfulness meditation is just one of them. Mindfulness meditation typically involves being aware that thoughts and images will inevitably arise during the process of meditating; rather than attempting to clear the mind of such thoughts, the goal might be to simply allow thoughts to come and go. Let's use an example, such as mindful(ness) meditation of the breath. Imagine yourself sitting comfortably in your lounge room (with or without yoga mat). As you do, bring your attention to your breath. Notice the temperature of the air as it enters your nostrils, and again as it leaves. While you’re doing this you become aware of noises outside – of cars passing by, of voices. Rather than getting up to check out the sounds, you would simply be aware that your attention had shifted, then you would refocus on your breathing. Each time your mind 'wanders' you simply note this with curiosity and openness then again, you bring your attention back to your breath. If your mind wanders a gazillion times, you refocus a gazillion times. It’s not a sign that you’re not doing it right. It’s a sign you’re doing it. In fact research shows that the changes in the brain occur because of this refocussing, not as a result of its absence.

Many people benefit from engaging in a formal mindfulness meditation such as this. Others types of formal mindfulness practices include performing a mindful ‘body scan’, or imagining passing thoughts as being like leaves on a stream or clouds in the sky. Some people aim to practice like this each day for periods of 30 minutes or more, while others prefer shorter periods like 5-10 minutes. Just do whatever works for you.

To recap - non-mindfulness forms of meditation typically involve clearing the mind whereas mindfulness meditation acknowledges that thoughts, images, urges, and memories are frequent and expected ‘visitors’ during the meditation show. We don't aim to 'clear' them away, simply to allow them to come and go, and gently 'unhooking' ourselves when (not if) we get caught up in them.

continue whatever you're doing with your full ATTENTION

Formal mindfulness meditation isn’t for everyone and many people are not aware that there are simple, brief, informal mindfulness skills which can be used regularly throughout the day to assist with focusing attention, engaging in activities (and relationships) non-judgementally, and developing a curious, open and flexible approach to life.

Surf Your Mind retreats are based on a framework of Acceptance and Commitment Training - referred to as 'ACT'. ACT teaches people techniques (both formal and informal) for ‘getting present’, and it assists people to identify their values and goals in life. During the course of a Surf Your Mind retreat, participants will learn a range of mindfulness techniques. You'll also identify your life goals, and develop strategies to live a values-based life. These tools will help you to not only achieve your goals but to enjoy life along the way. Don’t postpone happiness until you’ve achieved your goals – find it here. Find it now.

Find yourself.