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  • Writer's pictureAveril

A basic introduction to mindfulness

Updated: Jul 27, 2023

One of the most important things I’ve learned (and I wish I knew this in my teens and 20s) is:

Don’t believe everything you think.

Not everything I think is true. When I first heard this, it was a revelation to me. Up until my 30s, I pretty much believed everything that ran through my head.

This is what people think of me.

This is why he hasn’t called me back.

Mindfulness means purposefully paying attention to the present moment, without judgement.

It gives you a chance to pause and choose your response (rather than reacting), and a little distance from thoughts that cause distress rather than fully and automatically buying into them.

Dealing with unhelpful thoughts is where other strategies from therapeutic models such as CBT and ACT come in, but to notice them in the first place takes mindfulness.

Believing and getting stuck in those thoughts causes pain. But they are our own judgements, not objective truths, and mindfulness gives us the ability to notice, get some space from the thoughts, and choose whether we want to believe them.

What mindfulness is and is not

Mindfulness practice is a type of meditation. People often sit somewhere quietly and comfortably but alert. You may have your eyes open or closed, and spend a few minutes (or more as you gain experience) tuning your attention to the present moment.

Frequently clients mention to mention to me that they have tried mindfulness practice and they "aren't good at it" because they can't empty their minds. This comes from a mistaken understanding that in order to be practicing mindfulness you need to be sitting there without thinking.

As the teacher Tara Brach describes, the mind secretes thoughts like the body secretes enzymes. You are not going to be able to entirely stop this. During a formal mindfulness practice (where we deliberately choose to sit quietly with the intention to practice), our task is to notice thoughts arising without becoming hooked into them and following them too far down the rabbit hole.

This still might regularly happen, and mindfulness occurs in that moment where we recognise "Ah! Thinking!" and try to gently release ourselves from the content of the thought. We do this by returning our attention to an anchor we have chosen, such as the sensation of our breath in the chest or belly, or the feeling in the hands or feet, or listening to the sounds around us.

Every time you notice your mind wander and you catch it and return it to your anchor, it's like doing a "rep" of mindfulness practice like you would do a bicep curl in the gym. Mindfulness practice is noticing and returning, not being empty of thoughts so that there is nothing to be distracted by. So your each time your mind wanders, it allows you another opportunity to strengthen the skill.

Mindfulness can also be practiced in everyday life, and indeed that is the main point of the formal practice. While taking time to intentionally sit quietly is very helpful for building the skill of mindfulness, it's the application in our day-to-day where we really see the benefit.

You can practice mindfulness while undertaking everyday tasks where your mind might tend to wander - autopilot activities such as washing the dishes or taking a shower. Deliberately turn your attention to the sensations and experiences of the present moment, and notice each time your mind wants to drift back to your to-do list or some other mental chatter. Folks who find sitting still quietly, such as those with very high anxiety or ADHD might find this type of practice more accessible than a formal seated practice.

With practice, you learn to return your attention to the present moment more and more frequently as you go about your day. This has benefits for reducing stress, managing emotions and conflict more effectively, and accessing increased contentedness and pleasure.

Mindfulness resources

Pay attention to where you mind is when it's not occupied with a task, and you'll notice it's generally off in the past or future, chattering away, often about something difficult or uncomfortable or distressing.

While we do need to plan for the future or reflect on the past with purpose, that’s not what we are doing a lot of the time. Keeping our attention in the present sounds simple, but much of the day our minds are habitually worrying about the future or dwelling on the past.

Bringing our focus to the present takes practice and intention, so here are some of my recommendations for getting started with mindfulness.

Mindfulness teachers/authors

My introduction to mindfulness actually came ten years ago while I was going through the breakup of a long-term relationship. Tara Brach is the first mindfulness teacher I came across through her podcasts, which are recordings of the weekly lectures she gives at the Insight Meditation Centre of Washington. She is such a wonderful speaker and makes mindfulness and Buddhist concepts so accessible (and to anyone regardless of your spiritual orientation) that she is my first recommendation to anyone interested in learning more. You can find her talks on her website here, or search for her in your podcast app or iTunes.

Other great Western mindfulness teachers to check out include Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, and Pema Chodron.

Mindfulness apps

There are of course now a number of great apps to support your mindfulness practice. Here are my top recommendations:

Headspace is probably one of the most well-known mindfulness apps. It has a free 14 day trial to help you learn the basics of mindfulness with guided meditations. Following this you can sign up for a subscription to access a wide range of other guided meditations.

This app is my number one recommednation. It is free, with some paid ‘courses’ you can choose to undertake, but there are enough free resources in the app to last a lifetime, so paying isn’t necessary at all unless a particular course takes your fancy. There is a timer you can use with a choice of starting/ending sounds if you prefer to do your own practice (not guided), or a huge library of guided meditations including many by the teachers mentioned above. Sarah Blondin produces some of my favourite guided meditations on Insight Timer.

Calm is another very popular app for guided meditation. Like Headspace it also has a 7-day free trial, followed by a paid subscription.

I’m a better person because of mindfulness – less reactive, less at the mercy of my thoughts and feelings, more patient, and better able to respond to conflict and difficult situations.

I still have a lifetime of practice to do – it’s not like you learn about mindfulness and then you “are mindful” all the time. But whether you are having a tough time, are supporting someone else who is, or you are a human being, I can’t recommend mindfulness enough as a life-changing practice.

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