Raptitude recently had a 2-part series on mindfulness, because it seems 1 entry simply is not enough to stress its importance. And yet mindfulness is really a very simple concept. I can summarise it into 1 sentence, in fact, and that is “don’t keep thinking about the past or the future”. Yeah, that’s pretty much it.
For example, if you’re eating, don’t keep thinking about that exam tomorrow. Just focus on the eating. Focus on the food, and how they taste, rather than spearing each chunk of meat into your mouth, your fork already hovering over the next chunk, one foot preparing to step out to run back to your books. Not only does that obviously lead to indigestion, it’s bad for your psychological well-being too.
After reading the above 2 paragraphs, 2 thoughts may be going through your mind now.
1. That sounds ridiculously obvious. We all know that we shouldn’t think about other things while we’re doing one thing. I certainly don’t do that.
2. How can that possibly benefit us in any way? It sounds just like not thinking. I can’t help it if my over-active mind ponders events to rid me of the boredom of eating.
Allow me to address both points.
For the first point, it’s not as obvious as you’d think. In fact, right just now I faced a mindfulness crisis. I was reading my readings, and nothing was going through because my mind was concentrating on the mountain of other readings waiting for me. It sounds brainless to teach people to think about what they’re doing, but when was the last time you seriously relaxed and felt the sensation of bath water on your skin? When was the last time you walked down your usual road and took in your surroundings properly? Most of the time, our minds are caught up with what happened before, or what will happen later, and shockingly little time is spent on what is happening now. When you’re standing on a podium, preparing to make a speech, you’re not fearful of what is happening at the present moment. You’re thinking of possible future scenarios, like being laughed at by the audience, or stumbling. You can’t be afraid of the present, when you’re doing everything perfectly well.
As for the second point, mindfulness brings a whole host of unbelievable benefits. Allow me to offer some insight. For instance, think back of the last time you bathed. Is the memory fuzzy? You probably didn’t notice the smell of the shampoo you used. I might go a bit philosophical and ask you, how can you be sure you even bathed? Think back of what happened an hour ago. If you didn’t notice what you were doing then, it would probably turn up as a blank to you. What happened to all that time? If you hadn’t been living in that moment, it’s essentially wasted time, because it left no significant trace on your memory.
Now think about what happens if you’ve been living like this your whole life, fearing for the future and regretting the past. As you grow older, would you think that your entire life had been a lie? You can remember nothing from it except things that didn’t happen. Can you confidently say you know every tree outside your house, for one? If you can’t, then what was the point of living in that house?
There are also more pragmatic benefits for it. For example, if you’re facing a daunting task, one that is tedious or challenging, don’t think so far ahead. Focus on doing whatever you’re doing now well, and leave future tasks aside. Tasks seem a lot more manageable that way.
A third benefit is that mindfulness helps you keep things in perspective. Research has shown that continued thinking about a bad situation only exacerbates your emotions. This means that talking about sad things or venting your anger doesn’t actually help you; they only serve to keep reminding you of it and worsen your emotions. Aggression has been said to promote more aggression — when a person yells at someone else, for instance, they actually feel more inclined to continue yelling. People have been known to get carried away with the abuse, and this is when mindfulness comes to play. If you’re concentrating on the present and not the past, you may realise that what you’re doing now is really disproportional to the context.
Of course, mindfulness is easier said than done (then again, doesn’t the concept itself sound very obvious?). It requires constant conscious effort to shift one’s thoughts towards the present, but it can really help to make big things seem insignificant, and the small things in life suddenly develop more meaning.