How often have you driven to your destination and noticed that you have no recollection of details of your journey? Or replayed your favourite song multiple times realizing that you haven’t paid attention to the song? Or started eating something only to notice that you have finished the packet? I’m sure a lot of us tend to follow such patterns and end up performing similar activities. These are just a couple of examples from our day to day lives, which elucidates how ‘mindless’ we are. We all tend to operate on autopilot mode frequently and hence aren’t really being ‘present’ in our lives. There is a constant pressure to keep performing, or achieving something, thereby staying active so much so, that we tend to forget being a part of our own lives. This eventually makes us vulnerable to anxiety, depression, anger etc.
The practice of mindfulness is about taking control of our lives. It is the key to becoming aware and being in the present, every single moment. Kabat Zinn defines mindfulness as “paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non- judgmentally”. When we leave our mind to its own devices, we often recognize how it tends to wander, mostly into the past or the future. It is almost never in the present. Mindfulness is about training the mind to be consciously aware of everything in the present: what we see and do, the sensations in our body, the sounds that we hear and the thoughts that are present in our mind. It is also about accepting, without being judgmental. To accept our experiences as they arise without labeling them as good or bad, thereby allowing ourselves to become an observer without being swept away in the currents of our perceptions.
Why is mindfulness so important? There are a large number of scientific researches that examine the benefits of mindfulness such as reducing stress, depression, destructive emotions etc. Research also indicates its efficacy in improving well-being, focus and attention, interpersonal relationships and quality of sleep. One of the major factors that causes and prolongs mental suffering is the tendency to let oneself be overpowered and dominated by unnecessary thoughts that start off as a seed, but eventually branch out to exponential proportions, so much so that controlling them becomes difficult. So, do we try to stop these thoughts or stop having thoughts in general? Imagine a state where we can’t have any thoughts? Scary, isn’t it? It thus becomes important to understand that the thoughts in itself are not the problem, but the importance we give to them and how much we let them control us, matter. Mindfulness works by not attempting to eliminate thoughts, but by helping to de-identify oneself from them. A core principle that mindfulness-based programs are based on is the idea of ‘not being your own thoughts’.
How do we be more mindful? While it can be alarming to notice how often we are mindless, the good news is that mindfulness can be cultivated too! Just as physical fitness can be improved by regular physical exercises, it is also possible to develop mindfulness by deliberate mental practices. There are many ways to improve mindfulness which include formal meditation practices to everyday mindfulness activities, which demand an entire article devoted to itself. So how do we start getting into the practice for now? Keep aside a minute of your time. In that minute try to focus on your breath and nothing else. Every time your mind wanders (which it will!) bring your attention back to your breath, gently as many times as it is required. Use your breath as an anchor to ground you to the present. This is just a glimpse into the world of mindfulness. The reach is enormous!
Written by Dr. Athulya Jayakumar, Clinical Psychologist, NIMHANS