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what does it mean to be mindful

You probably have heard the term “mindfulness” before. But what does it mean to be mindful?

Mindfulness has its roots in Eastern religions.

Buddhists and Hindus have long been practicing mindfulness.

Focusing on the present moment has also been shared in many spiritual teachings to help us cultivate a deeper connection to the Higher Power.

But mindfulness is secular. Everyone can practice it.

After the likes of yoga and meditation, mindfulness has gained popularity in recent years. Whether you are religious or spiritual, more people are starting to practice mindfulness to help them reduce stress.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, the creator of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), is one of the people who makes mindfulness mainstream in the west. To make mindfulness more palatable to the masses, he removes the Buddhist components from the practice and puts it in a scientific and medical context.

Now, mindfulness is used in psychotherapy to help people deal with depression, anxiety, chronic pain, etc. 

But what exactly is mindfulness?

The Definition of Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the state of being fully present and being aware. It is a state of being, a practice, a habit, a lifestyle, etc. There are various definitions by psychologists such as Christopher Germer, scientists such as Jon Kabat Zinn, and spiritual teachers such as Thich Nhat Hanh.

My definition of mindfulness is:

The state of being aware of the present moment

with intention and acceptance.

During mindfulness practice, you can pay attention to your thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, or even your surroundings. It doesn’t matter. What matters is you are observing what’s here right now without judging it or adding any mental interpretation.

To help you understand what mindfulness is and what it means to be mindful, I have broken down my definition of mindfulness into four components:

  • Being aware,
  • Present moment,
  • With intention, and
  • With acceptance.

What Does It Mean to Be Mindful? Here Are 4 Qualities to Consider:

1. Being Aware: Are You Paying Attention?

It means that you are paying attention. You are noticing, observing, and perceiving what’s happening in real-time. You know what you are thinking, what emotions you are feeling, and the sensations in your body.

Contrast this to the times where we are not aware. Our speaking tone has changed but yet we are not aware that we are feeling angry. Or we might be so focused on our work that we didn’t notice there’s some nagging voice at the back of our mind. There might also be some slight pain in our body that we ignored or didn’t give attention to.

When you are not aware, you don’t know what’s going on.

You miss all the details because you have not been paying attention. You can travel from work back to your home every single day and be unable to tell what shops or buildings you have passed by. Or you can finish your meals one hour ago and not remember what you have for lunch or dinner.

Your mind is so all over the place that you fail to notice what’s in front of you right now or what you have been doing all this while.

2. Present Moment: Where Do You Place Your Attention?

The second component of mindfulness is about where you place your attention. You can place your attention in the past, the present, and the future. Mindfulness is about paying attention to the present moment.

What’s right here, right now?

What are you thinking and feeling right now? How does your body feel right now? What’s happening right now? There is nothing wrong with thinking about the past and the future. Reflecting on your past can give you great insights into your life. Planning for the future and visualizing what you desire can help you fulfill your dreams.

But there is a time for looking at the past, a time for staying present, and a time for thinking about the future. Each of them has its own merits and none of them should be denied or ignored.

3. With Intention: Is It Deliberate?

Our minds can bring us back to the past. It can bring us to the future. It can even focus on the present moment. However, the problem is, most of the time, we don’t do it with intention. We allow our minds to travel anywhere in time automatically without the intent to do so.

For example, when we are working, we are thinking about what we want to have for lunch. When we are eating our lunch, we are thinking about the work we have to do later. The mind cannot sit still in the present moment for long. It either wants to go back to the past or into the future and we just follow where our mind wants to go. That’s why mindfulness practice is important.

Mindfulness is deliberate.

You choose to be aware of the present moment.

You have a choice in what you want to focus on. Contrast this with mindless where you allow your mind and your attention to drift all over the place and you react to whatever stimulation you come across. The difference is you don’t have a choice in the latter because your mind is controlling you and deciding on your behalf what to focus on instead of you leading the mind to where you want to go.

4. With Acceptance: Are You Doing So Without Judgment?

The reason why our mind cannot sit still in the present moment for long is that the mind avoids pain. If you ask your mind to eat your meals mindfully, it will find it too boring and will want to think of something else to escape the boredom.

When you focus on the present moment, it’s not always pleasant. It’s not always comfortable to notice what you are feeling and your bodily sensations. Some emotions might be very intense and we are not used to dealing with such emotions. But if you are resisting or pushing down what you are feeling. Then, that is not mindfulness.

When you are mindful, you acknowledge your experience as it is

without judging it.

Perception is different from interpretation. When you perceive an event, it is what it is. But if you add any story to the event and interpret or judge the event as good or bad, then that is not mindfulness. Mindfulness merely brings your attention to what’s happening now. You perceive the event without adding any interpretation.

That’s why people who don’t understand how mindfulness works will think that mindfulness makes them feel worse or more anxious. In reality, they are already feeling anxious. But they have been avoiding their anxiety and distracting themselves with other things and activities that they don’t notice how anxious they feel. Mindfulness brings their attention to the anxiety that they are already feeling. Therefore, it feels intense.

It’s not because mindfulness makes you feel more anxious. It’s your resistance to what you are experiencing right now and the judgment you place on your experiences that makes it more challenging and uncomfortable for you to be mindful.

5 Benefits of Mindfulness Practice

Scientific research has shown that practicing mindfulness is good for your body and your mind. But instead of listing down the benefits that researchers have found here, I’m just going to list down the benefits I personally have received from practicing mindfulness.

1. Mindfulness practices enhance mental clarity and prevent burnout.

Whenever I start to lose focus in my writing, I know it’s time to take a mindfulness break. It’s time to get away from the computer, focus on my breath, close my eyes, look at the scenery outside the windows, etc. I would perceive what I’m feeling in my body or the surroundings and let my mind take a break from interpreting or organizing my thoughts.

From experience, if I don’t take a mindfulness break when I start to lose focus in my work, my mind will tend to go down the route of searching random things on the Internet. Oftentimes, instead of feeling better or more focused, I felt more anxious, ungrounded, overwhelmed than before. My mind becomes more incoherent and tired as it is running a thousand miles per second trying to find something to avoid the pain of working.

When the mind is tired or bored, instead of finding something else to do,

take a mindfulness break.

The mind thinks that finding other things to do helps to ease the pain. But the best thing to do is actually to switch off your mind completely and let it rest. Allow yourself to stop and disengage from thinking. Looking at something neutral such as the trees outside of your windows is better than reading the news on the Internet or social media. The former doesn’t trigger your mind to interpret as much while the latter tend to be more triggering which makes your mind work harder.

Mindfulness is beneficial for the workplace. A few minutes are all you need. Whenever I come back from a mindfulness break, my mind feels clear. I’m ready to focus and work some more or choose something else that I’m more motivated to do.

2. It’s easier to process your emotions when you are mindful.

When you are working or eating, do you notice that there is some background noise in your head?

Sometimes, when we are doing something that doesn’t require our full attention such as traveling from work, brushing our teeth or bathing, our mind is thinking about something else instead of focusing on the task we are doing. That’s because we do these tasks every single day and it becomes kind of auto-pilot.

Oftentimes, we are also not giving our thoughts much attention. They are as automatic as the tasks we do. We are not consciously thinking about something but the thoughts just surface on its own. If you pay full attention to these thoughts, you might discover that the mind is looping the same stories over and over again in the background.

Tuning in to your thoughts give you information

about what you are feeling.

These automatic thoughts are producing emotions that you aren’t unconscious of. If you let them run in the background and ignore them like open, unused apps in your mobile phone, not only do they take up your mental space but they can also make you feel impatient, resentful or stressed. The worse is you don’t know why you feel a certain way because you are not mindful of your thoughts.

When you practice mindfulness, you stop whatever that you are doing and attend to these background noises immediately. For example, when I notice that there is some judgmental voice in the background, I stop my work and listen to the voice. I allow it to complete its story, acknowledge what I’m feeling in the moment, and release the emotion. Then, I’ll be able to continue my work without the unconscious emotions and stories playing in the background.

Most of us don’t want our emotions to distract us from our work, so we ignore them. But it’ll be more difficult to process your emotions if you push them aside or are not aware of them in the first place. You allow them to accumulate in the background and gather momentum.

3. Mindfulness practices help you to be more self-compassionate.

A big element of mindfulness is acceptance. You accept what is at the moment. After practicing mindfulness in my daily life, I found that I have less judgment for myself. If I make a mistake, I just accept the mistake that I have made. My mind doesn’t go back to the past and recount all the mistakes that I’ve made previously. It doesn’t label me as someone incompetent, careless, or stupid anymore.

Mindfulness can help people who have low self-esteem. They usually have a perception error and think that they are inferior and unworthy. By being aware of the present moment and your thoughts, you can identify what’s the source of your thoughts and what’s the triggers. Is your perception based on a traumatic event that you have experienced in your childhood or are you perceiving the current event as it is?

Without mindfulness, it’s very easy to get into

a state of self-pitying.

Self-pitying is not the same as self-compassion. When you pity yourself, you become the victim that is based on a story from the past. Self-compassion is based on mindfulness. When you practice self-compassion, you have empathy for your old circumstances but you know that you are not the person from your past.

With mindfulness, you are able to separate the story and the real you that is rooted in the present moment, and not get lost in the story.

4. You find more joy in the things you do when you are mindful.

When you practice mindfulness, you experience your activities fully and you enjoy it more.

First, you don’t judge your experiences or what you do. For example, when you wash the dishes, you don’t think thoughts such as “Why do I have to do this?” and “I hate washing the dishes.” You focus on washing your dish and you feel the water in your hands. There is no resistance when you are mindful.

When you don’t resist your experience,

you will find your experience more enjoyable.

Second, you are more engaged in your experience when you pay full attention to it. For example, when you take time to savor every bite of your food and be mindful of what you eat, you smell the fragrance of your food and experience the favors in your mouth. Instead of stuffing food down your throat, watching the television, or thinking about something else while you are eating, you enjoy your food more when you pay attention to what you eat and eat it mindfully.

Third, you do things with more intention and purpose. You do what you want. On the flip side, when you are not mindful, you do what catches your attention. You react and follow the stimulation from the external world which might not be what you intend to do.

5. Mindfulness practices increase your creativity.

As you practice mindfulness daily, your analytical mind starts to quiet down. It’ll be easier for you to tune in to your intuition. When your mind is noisy, bringing you back to the past or the future, you can’t hear your intuition that well.

I’m the most creative when I’m calm and rooted in the present moment. My best insights and creative ideas usually come when my mind is empty and when I’m not thinking much. Emptiness gives birth to epiphanies. When your mind is empty, something inspiration rushes in to fill the emptiness.

Practicing mindfulness gives you more control over your mind. 

When you practice mindfulness, you train your mind to be present. You bring your mind back from the past and the future to the present moment. Doing this over time will give you more control over your mind. Your mind will start to follow your lead. When it’s time for you to create, you can easily quiet down your analytical mind and slow down your thoughts which allows insights to come forth.

Also, when you are mindful, you don’t interpret the events as much. Interpretations tend to be based on your beliefs system and filters. They are usually quick but not accurate. If you just pay full attention and perceive the events without any interpretation, you can capture more details and that helps you form a more holistic picture.

Furthermore, ideas or inspiration usually come from the higher self. It’s not something you can derive merely by analyzing or thinking. So allowing the mind to relax can increase your creativity.

Featured Photo Credit: Hakan Tahmaz