Mindfulness is popular at the moment. Schools, healthcare (MBSR), mental health (MBCT), MPs in the UK are practising mindfulness - with Ruby Wax, even TIME Magazine's at it - it's a revolution apparently. There's a lot of good stuff written and a lot of nonsense around which is always the case when something gets very popular.
I've been learning about and practising mindfulness for a few years now and it has helped me a lot. But initially, I had quite a hard time understanding exactly what it was that I was supposed to do and how doing that would help me. I'm no expert in this, I'm just a beginner, but maybe my current understanding will be of help to others.
Mindfulness comes from Buddhist teachings. It's one of the core techniques of Buddhism. It's just a state of mind that we all experience to some extent. I find phrases like "knowing what you're doing" or "present moment awareness" much more useful than "mindfulness". It's just a state of awareness. When you are mindful you are aware of being "here" in the present moment, you are not "lost in thought" — it's really as simple as that, it's not complicated.
"Lost in thought" is the opposite of mindfulness. "Where" do we go when we're lost in thought? It could be anywhere, it depends upon your particular habits of mind. Maybe you often get involved in imaginary futures — conversations, events or fantasies, playing them over in your head like a film loop, or perhaps re-playing something that happened in the past, imagining the consequences of what you've said or done but you are not "here", present for what is actually happening.
And that's how our brains usually work, flicking back and forth between being mindful of the present and then lost in thought somewhere, mindful, lost in thought...
Mindfulness does not mean an absence of thinking. Thinking allows us to function in the world, it's an amazing ability we humans have to problem solve and navigate the countless activities that we have to do, thinking is fine as long as you are aware that you are thinking and not "lost in the story" of the thinking.
And you don't need to be mindful of everything, just something. Mindfulness is not a "striving" to take everything in, it needs to have a relaxed feel to it. A state of mindfulness has no involvement with the internal dialogue about the things you are aware of, the term often used is a "non-judgmental" awareness. You simply notice what's happening, but you don't get involved in a discussion about it, whether it is good or bad, because then you're easily pulled into your thoughts again.
So mindfulness is reasonably simple to grasp, it's just a state of mind that we all inhabit sometimes. Relaxed present moment awareness without judgement or internal discussion. But what is hard to do is to sustain a more continuous mindfulness for any length of time — and that's what meditation is about. It's simply practising being mindful and getting better and better at it over time by doing it more. Meditation is a very broad term, it covers a lot of different techniques but essentially you are practising mindfulness to improve and refine your present moment awareness abilities. From formal daily sitting on a cushion to checking through your body and relaxing any tension you find while in the supermarket queue, there are many different practices. Sometimes you will be mindful of specific objects such as your breath, your body, sounds, your emotions, or just have a fully open mindfulness of whatever strays into your awareness.
You don't have to do anything else, you just work on your mindfulness, the rest will happen on its own...
How does it work then?
There's not necessarily anything wrong with being lost in thought, it can even be pleasant sometimes, but there is a lot to be learnt by being in the here and now. As you spend more time mindful, you start to notice details about how you navigate life, the habitual reactions you have, the paths you go down again and again. You see finer and finer detail about how it feels in your body when you have different emotions, or go particular places, how the things that you experience through your senses trigger your mind's conditioned responses, your habits, what you are reactive to, what "buttons" you have, and how they are pressed. It's a gradual learning and exploring process.
This increased understanding and clarity will slowly allow your awareness to step in more often to make better, wiser choices where you could not "see" before. In Buddhism this is often called "insight" but it's not necessarily a grand thing, it's just a chipping away at all our preconceptions, judgments and habitual conditioned reactivity to see things closer to how they really are, the layers of thoughts, feelings, and emotions that are going on.
With your practice increasing your ability to be mindful more of the time, eventually even in moments of powerful emotions such as anger you may be able to "watch" the anger arising and "catch" it before it takes hold of you and choose to not go down a well trodden path of unkind words and actions. This could be equated with the "neuroplasticity" of recent neuroscience. We can teach ourselves new tricks instead of following the same old patterns.
This process may not seem to be that intuitive, surely you have to "do" more; strive, focus, analyse to get results? You do need to practice but the results come from just "being" mindful more often and nothing else — no analysis, no working anything out.
It's not easy though, meditation is often misunderstood — we see the stereotypic images of calm happy people, blissed out and levitating. And while it is possible to achieve very beautiful and joyous states of mind in meditation, watching your mind and it's habits and continually returning to mindfulness over and over again is rarely easy, it's hard work.
I haven't yet slotted a daily sitting practice into my life, even though I continue to try! But I have got a lot out of increased mindfulness practice in my daily life. It has helped a great deal with anxiety, self esteem, and with my relationships. I listen to a couple of podcasts to keep the ideas fresh in my mind so I am often reminded to be mindful.
This is just my basic understanding of a big topic. These can be hard concepts to get your head around with just words. I struggled and I've read a lot of confusing, ambiguous descriptions of mindfulness and meditation. My words may be confusing too, but maybe they'll help someone. Whether you sign up for an eight week course in MBSR, take meditation classes, or just try to learn quick techniques to become more mindful in your daily life, these practices can and do help thousands of people every day.
So happy practising. There are many resources available online around these topics but here's just a couple to get you started...
Audio Dharma - the podcast of the Insight Meditation Centre, Redwood, California
Dharma Seed - the podcast of Spirit Rock Meditation Centre, California
Mindfulness in Plain English - Ven. Henepola Gunaratana (Free PDF)
Wherever You Go, There You Are : Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life - Jon Kabat-Zinn