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What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is in danger of being seen as the latest fad or flavour of the month in the worlds of psychology and well-being, which would be unfair as it has a strong evidence-base plus interesting long-term possibilities for aiding well-being and providing solutions to some of our most challenging social problems. So what is this thing called mindfulness?

The accepted definition of mindfulness is “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally to things as they are.” That’s quite a mouthful so let’s look at it more closely.

It is “the awareness” - it is about seeing or perceiving differently from our usual ways…

“through paying attention on purpose” - we often pay attention but not on purpose. Think of being on automatic pilot while driving. You are paying attention, but not to your driving. Instead your mind is daydreaming, wandering from things you need to do, to thoughts about good or bad times in the past. So “paying attention on purpose” is not our default way of being. Mindfulness practices ask us to focus deliberately on some thing.

“in the present moment” - this paying attention on purpose is to be continued moment to moment, which is quite a challenge for most of us as our mind drifts from mood to emotion to thought in an unbroken chain.

“and non-judgementally” – at an unconscious level we are constantly judging things. Did that meeting go well? My colleague was out of order when she criticised our policy, etc. Mindfulness asks us to suspend judgements during the practices, and to try to judge only when we actually choose to judge something, not when judgemental statements emerge from our minds.

“to things as they are” – If the sky is grey pay attention to the greyness of the sky. If you’re feeling lonely consciously be aware of your sense of loneliness. If you feel egotistical and superior at a particular moment, see this, note it. Very often we are blinkered, failing to see things as they really are. In mindfulness this particularly means paying attention to things as they are inside our own heads and hearts, though it also relates to external awareness.

The definition starts with “the awareness that emerges” when we do mindfulness practices. The awareness that emerges over time is that our minds play mental and emotional tape loops endlessly. Fantasies of success, bitterness about past betrayals or hurt, inner voices saying we’re no good at sport, at maths, at whatever, and countless other mental messages unique to each of us.

From the awareness that develops with ongoing practices of mindfulness, we may come to terms with and accept the existence of these inherent and often destructive mental patterns. With true acceptance we can choose not to be frustrated or anxious about their existence, and we may not fully buy into the messages or emotions they send. We start to see them for what they are, just mental patterns, just tapes. We can’t get rid of them, and indeed trying to get rid of them causes further problems, so we just let them be.

This may all sound somewhat esoteric, fanciful and possibly something altogether un-Scottish for people to engage with it. But the evidence is strong and robust that mindfulness practices help people in many different situations. The following section summarises the main benefits of mindfulness proven by ongoing research around the world.

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