Mindfulness promises to be life-changing, but is it really that powerful? Being mindful won’t necessarily change the material conditions of our lives. But it can change the way we see the world.
What do I mean by that? Well, mindfulness offers us a deep sense of peace that is free from time. Often, we try to change our lives by setting goals for the future. But mindfulness is different because it allows us to be timeless.
So, when we are mindful, we don’t look to the future to become ‘better’ versions of ourselves. This is because being present is the most beautiful power we have. In this way, mindfulness radically transforms the way we see our lives.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is beyond cognition, so it’s difficult to explain what mindfulness is to the thinking mind. When the thinking mind is taught mindfulness, it often dismisses it as something too spiritual. So, try to visualise mindfulness instead:
Imagine this room is your mind. Look at the walls; these are the perimeters of your mind. Look at the objects inside the room; these are your thoughts. Now, notice the empty space within the room. This is your conscious awareness; it is the space ‘beyond cognition’. This is present moment awareness. This awareness can observe your thinking mind and it can fully attend to the present moment without judgement. This space is present inside every human being, but many people are not aware of it. Instead, they conflate their thinking mind with their identity.
Once you’ve visualised your mind in this way, it’s often easier to understand the clinical definition of mindfulness. Mindfulness has been defined as “Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally”.
The origins of mindfulness
Mindfulness is influenced by Buddhist meditation. If you appreciate the basic tenets of Buddhism, you’ll understand what it means to be mindful:
- The timelessness of being – Buddhists believe in the doctrine of impermanence. This is the idea that everything is impermanent (thoughts, emotions, material possessions etc.). So, we should not form attachments.
- Denial of the self – Buddhists believe that there is no such thing as a ‘self’ that exists across time. The ‘self’, as we know it, causes suffering so we should not identify with it.
- Interconnectedness – This is the belief that we are interconnected with the earth and other beings. This is partly why we cannot have a ‘self’.
These are the foundations of mindfulness. So, when we practise mindfulness, we go beyond cognition. We embody the time-less and self-less dimensions. Having said that, you don’t need to be Buddhist to practise mindful meditation.
Mindfulness in the West
In 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn was the first man to ‘secularise’ mindfulness. He introduced an 8-week programme called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). This was a programme for chronically ill people who were not responding to traditional medicine. Jon Kabat-Zinn aimed to show people that they could manage their health through present moment awareness.
In addition, Thích Nhất Hạnh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist who has taught mindfulness throughout the world.
In 1997, Ekhart Tolle published The Power of Now; a book which catalysed the ‘mindfulness movement’. Tolle doesn’t use the term mindfulness because it implies the mind is full. Instead, he uses the terms ‘being conscious’ and ‘intense presence’ to mean much the same thing. Countless people say this book changed their life, and I would agree that it has changed mine.
How can mindfulness change your life?
As mentioned, mindfulness doesn’t necessarily change your material circumstances (though it might). So, don’t practise mindfulness to become wealthier, better than someone else, more enlightened, or even ‘happier’.
According to Tolle, mindfulness (or being conscious), doesn’t make you happier in the traditional sense. This is because ‘happiness’ is created by the thinking mind and the ego. Instead, when you become truly conscious, you experience a deep sense of peace.
Mindful people live more engaged lives because they are not ruled by destructive patterns of thinking. For example, a mindful person can observe when they are feeling jealous. Instead of lashing out, they observe this jealousy from a position of intense presence. And, through this presence, the jealousy is transmuted.
So, as you become more mindful, you will probably experience less ‘drama’ in your life. This is because the things that would have bothered you before will bother you less; they can no longer destroy the peace that is within you.
How mindfulness has changed my life
One of the criticisms of mindfulness is that it seems a bit wishy-washy. So, here are some concrete examples of how mindfulness has transformed my life:
- I appreciate simple pleasures which I would have overlooked before. For example, I enjoy looking at the sky, interacting with animals, and making coffee because I do these things mindfully. I am not constantly waiting for the next moment; the present moment gives me everything I need.
- Being more mindful has helped me to slow down, but I don’t feel any less productive or less fulfilled. On the contrary, I feel more productive and engaged in life.
- At times, I feel angry, sad, guilty etc., but I am less inclined to act on these emotions in a destructive way. Because I can observe these emotions, I feel like they are not the whole of me. There is still some space inside of me which is not affected by these emotions, and that allows me to feel at peace.
- I am less identified with my ego. I see that some of my old patterns of thinking were borne out of a desire to compete with others. For example, to be smarter, morally superior, or more beautiful than others. Mindfulness has helped me to observe and dissolve these thoughts when they arise. Also, because everyone can be mindful, this suggests we are more than our egos, and that we can connect on a deeper level. This realisation has improved my relationship with others.
The interconnectedness of being
But, don’t just ask how mindfulness can transform your life. When we become more mindful, this transforms other people’s lives, too. This is because compassion is the essence of mindfulness. So, when we are truly mindful, we accept not only our thoughts but the thoughts and behaviours of others.
This doesn’t mean that we have to put up with other people’s bad behaviour. But, if we start from a position of non-judgemental acceptance (mindfulness), we can act mindfully, rather than react.
According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, compassion is the essence of mindfulness. Indeed, in this lecture, he suggests mindfulness could help us to achieve social justice on a global scale.
How can I practice mindfulness?
There are several ways you can practice mindfulness. Here are some suggestions:
- The body scan meditation – This is an ancient meditation technique that encourages you to focus your attention on one part of the body at a time. The body scan meditation enlivens your deeper sense of presence.
- Walking in nature can help you to engage with the present moment. For example, look at a tree and notice your reaction. If your mind tries to label the tree, observe this thought but don’t identify with it. Aim for a deeper interaction with the tree. See yourself as interconnected with that tree (beyond the level of form). See Ekhart Tolle’s The Power of Now for a more detailed description of this technique.
- Look into the eyes of an animal and repeat the above steps.
- Choose a time when you are not stressed and practice mindful awareness. Observe your thoughts, but do not label them as good or bad. Simply observe. In the beginning, you might practise this for 1-2 minutes at a time. As you progress, you will begin to tap into the present moment on a more regular basis.
As you become more mindful, you may develop your own techniques. If you want to learn more about mindfulness, it’s helpful to read books and watch videos on this topic.
But, as mentioned, don’t see mindfulness as something to be ‘achieved’ in the future. Mindfulness is timeless and it can only ever be experienced in the present moment. After all, that is its power.
Through my personal experiences, I have always held a strong interest in human suffering and satisfaction; this greatly influenced my career path. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy before completing a master’s degree in psychology at Regent’s University London.
I then completed a postgraduate diploma in philosophical counselling before being trained in ACT(Acceptance and commitment therapy).
I’ve spent the last eight years studying the encounter of meditative practices with modern psychology.