Mindfulness: What, Why & How?
What is mindfulness and how is it linked to meditation? How can it affect our health and wellbeing? What impact can it make on our lives? These are questions that we have asked our expert speakers and these are some of the answers they have given...
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness touches every aspect of my life, as I am constantly returning to my breath and my body in order to be present to the happiness in each moment that so often used to pass me by. Mindful Eating provides an especially enjoyable form of practice, as I have always loved food! Using my physical nourishment to see how complex my connections are to the world around me is a fascinating experience that I love to share with other people.
Mindfulness enables me to feel much more secure in the present, and therefore able to look at the past and the future from a calmer, more rational place. By looking deeply I am able to gain useful insights in order to react more constructively to the inevitable challenges of life, including my treatment for cancer, and subsequent cure, in 2015. In particular, the practice of mindful speaking and deep listening has helped me to communicate and engage more compassionately and effectively with myself and with those around me. This has brought greater peace and joy to my inner world and to my relationships than ever before, helping me to be less anxious, more relaxed and therefore able to enjoy life more.
To me, mindfulness is about living vibrantly. Whether I'm in bed with a cold or eating a wonderful meal, mindfulness allows me to there feeling and sensing it all, whilst doing my best not to want more or less of it.
To me, mindfulness is a practice that brings me closer to what matters most – the mountains where I live in Wales – my grandchildren – the world, people and all the happenings around me that offer joy and also concern. Without an investment in a mindfulness practice, I am more reactive and life seems more grey. With it, my experience is more spacious, alive. I can be more patient and kindly – to myself and to others.
For me, mindfulness is a way of life. It informs my experience of the present moment, my relationships, my work, my art, my dreams and goals. In a world of change, mindfulness keeps me centred, calm, and focused on what is real and true.
When & where do you practice mindfulness?
I have a formal sitting practice every weekday morning which I do at home, by the window, overlooking the garden. I then like to weave informal mindful practices into my day by finding activities and interactions to bring mindful attention to. I also go to a moving meditation workshop every week or two called 5 Rhythms.
Beyond my personal practice I teach group classes in corporate settings, offer 1:1 mindfulness coaching and lead retreats at Champneys. I learn as much from my teaching work and my students as I do from my personal practice.
I meditate at home every day and in a Sangha once or twice a week, as the support and insight of others is crucial to my understanding and appreciation of mindfulness. However this is just one aspect of my practice, as mindfulness is too much fun to be left on the meditation cushion! Far more important is to practice mindful living every moment of the day, whether I am walking, cleaning my teeth, washing up, eating, writing, listening or speaking. I practiced in this way for many years before a daily sitting meditation practice naturally established itself.
I do my best to be mindful in every moment. For me I think a more interesting question is: when am I not mindful? I often lose it when I'm eating and distracted into reading at the same time, or when I get swept up into wishing things were different to the way they are. The original translation of the Buddhist word we now call mindfulness was "remembering". It seems the practice really is about simply remembering to stay present.
I practice mindfulness in a corner of my bedroom usually twice a day – at the start after breakfast, and in the early evening. This is my ‘formal’ practice when I move into stillness and silence – but everyday mindfulness is just as important – in the many moments of waiting: for the kettle to boil, for traffic to move, for a meeting to start, for a cue to clear. For me it is about ‘coming back’ many times a day – to the feet on the floor, to the breath in the belly, or to any current activity (like the feel of my fingers on this keyboard).
How can mindfulness change individuals' lives?
Many people who come to study with me complain about living life at 100 miles/hour, or struggling with anxiety, or not being able to manage the stresses and strains of life. Even if people don't meditate regularly, the ideas in mindfulness of bringing more awareness and kindness to our lives can precipitate major changes. Couple that with sitting down quietly to face yourself every day, and the changes can be dramatic! People not only learn how to deal with their problems, but start to live at an enhanced level of function.
As the result of living mindfully is greater personal insight, healing and transformation, mindfulness can change individuals’ lives in countless ways. However I usually find that people quickly report feeling calmer, happier, more secure and focused.
I believe that mindfulness practice has the potential to help us come back to this present moment experience. This offers us…. (1) the possibility of opening up a gap in the endless busy and negative patterns of mind and (2) an opportunity to notice and appreciate more of what we value and enjoy.
Together, this can transform lives – in ordinary but profound ways. This is especially true for those who are struggling with illness, bereavement, chronic stress and so on. Yet, so many people feel brought down by the everyday grind of a life. Mindfulness practice has something to offer all of us. However, mindfulness is not an easy answer or quick solution to all our ills. It requires commitment and ongoing intention, and remembering to come back and start again, time and again.
Mindfulness has the capacity to wake people up to the reality of their lives and whilst this can initially be rather challenging it can also be transformational. It is a joy to see individuals finding new ways to deal with their emotions, life-situation and thought-forms, and to find further peace and alignment.
What is your top tip for anyone looking to enhance their practice?
Decide what really matters to you – and reconnect with a sense of that at the start of every day, to inspire your practice.
For me, it is to bring variety to your mindfulness practice to keep it fresh. The reason I wrote my book: 100 Mindfulness Meditations was because I wanted something like a recipe book of practices to choose from. In this way I can find practices which are resonant for me every day and this keeps me coming back for more. The aim is for mindfulness to become a beautiful resource that supports you through the ups and the downs.
There are so many possible benefits of mindfulness that for me it has been useful to let go of any expectation as to what might happen, and simply to enjoy being mindful. For example, when I used to think that I “should” meditate because “it is good for me” I never used to do it. So now I meditate simply because it is pleasant to sit down and focus on my breathing, and in particular to practice one of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh’s beautiful guided meditations. Sometimes I feel more relaxed and happier, and sometimes the insights and subsequent healing and transformation are life changing. Sometimes nothing much happens at all! Whatever the outcome, it is pleasant just to take time out of the day to rest, recharge and refocus myself. In other words, I practice mindfulness purely because it makes me happy to place my attention on the present moment. It is very simple, if you let it be.
If you don't meditate daily, then make a commitment to yourself to spend some time every day (5mins, 20mins, 1hr) to sit with however things are for you at that time – busy, quiet, peaceful, chaotic – just be with it.