What is mindfulness and why does it matter?
We all want to be happy, but fewer and fewer of us seem to be achieving that goal. Statistics tell us that an increasing number of people in the UK and other industrialised nations are suffering from anxiety and depression.
Consumerism works to manipulate us into desiring material things and into believing that these things will make us happy. This, of course, isn’t true: an expensive new car, or even a big new house, can only bring a temporary kind of joy, as we will soon desire more stuff. It’s a never-ending cycle.
We think we will only be truly happy when;
- we earn a certain amount of money
- we get that prestigious job
- we publish that book
- we win that competition
- we live in the ideal home
- we meet the perfect partner
And so on. But none of these things can make us happy, not in an enduring way, because outside of Instagram, there is no such thing as the perfect life!
A scientific study found that we spend 47% of our waking time thinking about the past or the future rather than the present moment. We tend to ruminate over past events and worry about what the future holds. This can cause a great deal of distress and unhappiness.
When we’re not fully present, we live our lives mechanically, failing to notice the beauty of whatever we’re doing. Even something as simple as breathing, which we do automatically from birth to death, takes on a magical quality when we become truly aware of it.
Mindfulness teaches us to be aware of our surroundings, our physical sensations, and of our thoughts and emotions, but rather than identifying with and attaching ourselves to them, we learn to observe and, if necessary, tame them.
The word 'meditation' can be misleading. A friend once asked me "what is it you meditate on?", as though meditating entailed thinking deeply about something (which, of course, is another meaning of the same word). But the purpose of mindfulness or any type of meditation practice is the exact opposite; to 'empty' the mind and quieten the noisy chatter, to allow our intuition and creativity to shine through.
A general (wrong) assumption is that to meditate, you need to sit on the floor cross-legged, hands in chin mudra (thumbs and forefingers together). While this is for many an effective position for meditating, it is by no means the only one. You can sit in a chair and meditate. You can also meditate while walking, running, swimming, weightlifting, practising yoga, painting, dancing or making music. You can even meditate while doing the washing up! Whichever activity you’re engaging in, be it cerebral or physical, creative or mundane, what matters is that you’re fully present and do not allow the mind chatter to take over.
However, stillness has its advantages. When sitting still in total silence, you realise how noisy and chaotic the mind chatter is. You might be thinking "you want me to sit still and do nothing!". If the idea fills you with dread, then all the more reason to do it.
One aspect of modern society is its non-stop nature: 24-hour shops, services, news channels, etc. We work longer and longer hours, and even when not working, we spend a lot of time thinking about work.
The famous quote 'time is money', which dates back to 1748, couldn’t be more valid in the so-called gig economy, where the idea of sitting still 'doing nothing' can feel like a waste of a precious resource. Yet that time spent 'doing nothing' may be much more valuable than you think. It may bring about the inspiration for your next art project or business venture, or the solution to a long-standing personal issue.
It might be helpful to think of it as an investment in your emotional and physical health.
Here are some of the proven benefits of mindfulness practice;
- reduced stress and anxiety
- reduced depression
- reduced insomnia
- increased memory and focus
- improved eating habits and weight control
- reduced compulsive and addictive tendencies
- increased confidence and emotional resilience
Like musical training and language learning, mindfulness practice has been proven to promote neuroplasticity - structural changes in the brain that improve our cognitive abilities and change the way we react to stressful situations.
During the practice, you mustn't try to suppress your thoughts, but rather let them come and go freely. In time, the 'space' between each thought will get bigger, allowing the mind to expand rather than go round in circles, which is what it tends to do when left unchecked.
The Buddhist sages referred to it as the 'monkey mind' - a confused, restless state of being. The monkey mind is also our inner critic, which keeps us stuck and stifles our creativity. It is the part of the brain most connected to the ego and can be somewhat difficult to keep at bay.
After many years of it being treated as a fad, the consensus among mental health professionals finally seems to be that mindfulness is one of the most effective methods of increasing and sustaining happiness - so why not give it a go? If an hour seems unachievable, try 20 minutes a day for a month. You have little to lose and potentially so much to gain.