The first time I had a sense of what my mind was up to, I was staying in a Buddhist forest monastery with few distractions and even fewer escapes.
I had come to the monastery, based in England, to take a break from my job in the media, which felt like a constant stream of coffee runs to help my colleagues and I keep up with the attention demanded by various electronic devices.
At the time, I had flirted with mindfulness and meditation, and thought to explore the practice further. Of course, life often gets in the way of healthy intentions. Who has the time to take up meditation when there’s so much to attend to?
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I was in my early 20s then and, like many people, had several misconceptions about mindfulness and what it really means to live mindfully. So, I decided to head to a place where I’d be free from most everyday distractions, and where people really practised what they preached.
It was on my third day, living in this monastery with no access to my laptop or smartphone, TV or anything else to devour my attention, that I had my first glimpse into just how mindless I was.
Having nowhere to go, I was confronted by the deluge of thoughts that ran through my mind at any given time. The amount of ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’ and comparisons my mind was churning out was incredible. How did I not notice this before?
The answer is that I was always able to ‘keep busy’ or distract myself if ever I wanted to escape boredom or any uncomfortable thought or feeling. There was always something on hand to offer immediate relief. Including coffee.
Like many people, I was constantly struggling against myself; running against time, pushing my body and mind to the limits. The idea of slowing down or getting more sleep – or meditating regularly – seemed so counterintuitive. Surely the harder you push yourself, the easier life will be, right?
From my own experience, the more I developed my mindfulness practice (which is now between 1-2 hours each day), the better I felt. The regular headaches I previously suffered all but disappeared, I sleep much better, I’m much less reactionary than I was (still a work-in-progress though!), and where once I couldn’t speak to a small group of friends without feeling the crippling pangs of social anxiety, those too have diminished considerably.
Developing a consistent mindfulness practice has helped me in all these ways and more. Does that mean I never get angry, never have a headache, or never make mistakes? Of course not. These are all part of life; that said, the benefits I continue to experience have made me commit to a daily mindfulness practice for the past 15 years (occasional lapses aside).
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Fast-forward to 2016, my good friend and writing partner, Dr. Eugene Tee, an emotions researcher, decided to write a book on mindfulness and emotions. Knowing that there are several misunderstandings of what it means to be mindful, we thought it’d be helpful to write a book that brought Eugene’s academic pedigree together with my practical experience of learning directly from monks and nuns.
To address just one misunderstanding – you needn’t be Buddhist to practise mindfulness. It’s a bit like learning the piano: the exercises and benefits arise regardless of who’s teaching you. In fact, there is no such thing as Buddhist mindfulness – Buddhism just happens to be the philosophy from which modern mindfulness teachers take their lead.
So, what does it actually mean to be mindful? It’s all about living in the present moment, right? That’s part of it, but to think that’s all there is to being mindful is like saying lifting weights is all there is to living a healthy lifestyle. In our book, Mindfulness and Emotions: Understanding Your Mind and the Benefits of Being Present (available via MPH and downloadable from Amazon), we outline the five key ingredients that come together to make up a mindfulness practice. These were originally compiled in the research of Hakan Nilsson and Ali Kazemi, in their 2016 paper Reconciling and Thematizing Definitions of Mindfulness: The Big Five of Mindfulness.
The 5 Key Ingredients of Mindfulness:
1. Attention and awareness
Paying attention to our experience, on purpose, in a way that’s fluid, flexible and voluntary, is the starting point of mindful living. When we play video games, we are attentive and aware of what’s going on, but this kind of attention is neither fluid, flexible nor voluntary – rather, it’s rigid and fixed: we become engrossed without knowing it.
Mindful attention is about developing the habit of tuning into your experience, moment-by-moment. How does your left foot feel right now? What sensations are in your chest or stomach? Can you pick out three sounds in your surrounding environment? Take a deep breath and really be there with it… how does it feel?
When you look at anything, you’re seeing it as it is, right here, right now. You can’t ‘see’ anything in the past, and you can’t see what’s not yet in front of you. Our vision is always present-centred. Is it the same with your mind? It’s likely that you find yourself wandering off into the past and future quite a lot – on average, around 50 per cent of the time, according to research studies.
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Being present-centred is about bringing ourselves to this moment, fully present to whatever’s happening. That doesn’t mean you can’t think about the past or present – keep in mind the key words wandering and voluntary. Problems arise when our minds simply drift all over the place without purpose or intent.
3. External events
This refers to how we react to anything that affects our attention, which is often neither positive nor negative. A simple example of this is when a football team scores a goal. One person is joyful while the other becomes frustrated. All that’s happened is a ball has crossed the goal line – it’s just an event. And yet, so much emotion arises according to how we frame what happens.
Similarly, when we get stuck in traffic jams, we might get annoyed or angry with the rows of cars moving just a few inches at a time. Does our reaction help speed things up or clear the traffic? Are we not as much a part of the jam as every other driver? Having awareness of what’s going on around us and how we’re reacting is not about trying to suppress our emotions, quite the opposite – it’s about being present to what’s happening within us and paying attention to that experience.
We might reflect that getting emotional adds to the thrill of a football match, and so we accept the highs and lows as part of the game. On the other hand, if we reflect on how we react to traffic jams or public transport running late, what are we likely to conclude? Is it helpful? Enjoyable? Are we relaxed or stressed?
What qualities do you want to develop? Clear thinking? More focus? Being calm under pressure? More loving and understanding? The techniques we describe in the book (and others that can be readily found online) help us cultivate positive traits that we’d like to see within ourselves. It takes a steady effort over time, and so it’s certainly not something that will happen overnight.
Through mindfulness practice, it’s all about the process of progress.
If you’re someone who gets angry 50 times in a week, you’re not going to be a jolly Zen master within a few days. Just being aware of what angers you, and that you’re experiencing the emotion is a step in the right direction. If you find after a while that you get angry only 40 times each week, that kind of progress should be celebrated.
This ingredient can have an uncomfortable “Thou Shalt Not” feel to it, but it’s simply an encouragement to take appropriate action in any given situation, and this is arguably the most crucial ingredient in developing mindfulness.
The example we use in the book is to imagine that a child has dropped a toy. Being aware that the toy is dropped, having the presence of mind of what’s going on, and wanting to help are all part of the mindfulness process.
However, the practice is completed by taking the toy and handing it back to the child. It’s an appropriate action that leaves us and the child feeling good.
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In life, we encounter many complicated situations and will of course, on occasion, make mistakes and bad decisions. Ultimately, mindfulness is about having the awareness to reflect and learn and keep trying our best. Done well, you’ll start to see and feel the benefits of your practice, while retaining your work-in-progress humanness in all its glory.