Over the last few weeks, I’ve been trying to locate a light-hearted mindfulness questionnaire so that you can pop on my website and quickly assess how mindful you are. Most questionnaires have been designed for research purposes and they are all a bit different. The differences depend on their answer to the question, “what is mindfulness?”.
It turns out that mindfulness is not one thing. You can have a moment of mindfulness (state), be habitually mindful (trait) or do practices (formal mindfulness) and activities (informal mindfulness) to help you become more mindful.
A definition of mindfulness?
In the common vernacular mindfulness often means paying attention, “parents please be mindful of your children in the supermarket trolley’, but attention is only one part of the picture. A salesperson can pay good detailed attention when working out how to sell you a product. That may be skilful but is it mindfulness?
An oft heard definition penned by Jon Kabat-Zinn is, “Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose in the present moment, non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience. So it involves paying attention, now, with a particular intention.
What are you paying attention to?
In formal mindfulness training you’re asked to pay attention to a felt sense of your internal experience as it happens, rather than thinking about it. Let's give it a go. What sensations can you feel if you clench your hand right now? In different practices, you'll pay attention to different things including your breath, sensations in the body, sounds or even thoughts, as they happen- in the moment.
What is your intention?
It is also important that you bring a curious, interested, non-judging and accepting attitude to whatever it is that you experience, whether your attention is focussed or wandering and whether you like or dislike what you are experiencing.
You might be doing a mindfulness practice and noticing joy, pain or boredom. You're being asked to get to know the felt sense of them all with acceptance. It's not a passive acceptance but a real coming up close and getting to get a 'felt sense' of your experience with an attitude of evenness. A clear seeing.
It sounds so easy
It sounds simple but can be deceptively tricky. It takes time to develop stable attention and a non-judgmental approach to whatever you experience and regular practice helps build this ability. There's a neuroscience saying, " our mind is like teflon for the positive and velcro for the negative" when you sit down and practice mindfulness this saying takes on a new and pertinent meaning.
If you begin a formal mindfulness practice you are likely to notice your mind wandering and then you might notice yourself thinking, “what's wrong with me I can't even concentrate for 2 minutes" or "this is boring I can't bear it". Finding a way to pay attention non-judgmentally is tricky and often counter-intuitive…why would you want to approach what is difficult or uncomfortable without judgment? Having a teacher can help.
So why would you want to accept what's either bland or uncomfortable?
This practice is a good training for life. In day to day life many of the positive things that happen are just a little bit nice, not amazing. If you are not actively noticing these moments, you can miss them and life is made up of many moments.
When stressful events take place we often try to avoid our experience of the stress or alternatively get completely caught up in it and are unable to see past it. Training in mindfulness tends to reduce this tendency and this is better for our wellbeing -more adaptive most of the time.
Mindfulness is something that cannot be learned through words alone, it must be experienced.
Experience is often richer than words. You can't compare the taste of a juicy orange with a description or a picture of an orange. Likewise, when you have a really laugh from your belly, you only know what I am talking about because you have experienced it!
Mindfulness is no different. I can tell you what your mind will do when you sit down and practice, I can tell you about the benefits a practice can offer but that's an impoverished experience.
Working out what mindfulness might mean to you.
Researchers will continue to design mindfulness questionnaires and fine-tune their answer to the question “what is mindfulness?" while people, like you and me, will try out mindfulness practices to work out what mindfulness is from the inside out.
There are many ways to explore mindfulness. You could do a retreat, start with an app or enrol in a course. If you'd like to explore this further with the support of a teacher and other students, you might like to come along to a HeadRest Mindfulness based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course (possible link).
In this 8-week course we do plenty of practice, delve into these questions, and look at bringing mindfulness into daily life in a very practical way with a focus on stress reduction. The classes are supportive, informative, stimulating and enjoyable.