As a counsellor, I’ve noticed that the majority of people who have tried mindfulness or meditation feel they have failed at it. Most report that they just couldn’t sit still and definitely couldn’t keep thoughts at bay.
If that describes your experience with mindfulness, it’s time to forget everything you know about it.
Mindfulness simply means to move one’s attention into the present moment. It’s impossible to fail at and it doesn’t require sitting still or holding thoughts at bay.
What does it mean to shift one’s attention into the present moment?
First of all, what isn’t in the present moment? Thoughts. I’m sure you’ve noticed that you are thinking most of the time and this means that most of the time your attention is going toward your thoughts.
Although thoughts are happening in the present moment, one by one, they are not about the present moment. Thoughts are either about the past, the future or an imagined event or problem. Even if you are thinking about the present situation, it’s not quite the present because it’s an abstraction about the present.
How can we control our thinking?
I don’t choose what thoughts come into my mind and I’m sure you don’t either. What I can choose is whether to follow a thought or not - in other words pay attention to it, or not. So, mindfulness is not controlling thoughts. Instead it’s taking attention away from thinking. It’s fairly easy to do, at least for brief periods of time.
What would I move my attention to?
The practice of mindfulness is about noticing when your attention is fully absorbed in thoughts and moving your attention back to the present.
Anything in the present can be used as an object for your attention. Focusing on a sound, a sight, a smell, taste or touch or a combination of these can work well. Focusing on the body, such as sensing the feelings in the body or the breath moving in and out work really well since the body and breath are always there. It’s particularly helpful to give attention to your body anyway so using the body and breath as a mindfulness object is extra helpful.
It sounds boring, how could I spend all day noticing things around me or in my body?
You don’t have to spend all day. Just for this present moment, even just 10 seconds.
What is mindfulness helpful for?
The things that bring one to an interest in mindfulness are typically physical and emotional pain and suffering. Stress is the most obvious case of that. There is now a large amount of scientific research showing that mindfulness can significantly reduce stress.
How does mindfulness reduce stress or any other form of pain or suffering?
At first you may come to mindfulness because someone told you it will help. But when you begin to practice you realise for yourself that your own thought processes are creating a substantial part of your suffering. Mindfulness works directly on changing the thought processes.
Why is mindfulness hard?
It’s very easy to shift attention into the present moment. It’s hard to keep it there and it’s hard to consistently return attention to the present moment.
For one thing, attention moving to thoughts is a deep habit and it’s hard to change that. Another factor is that part of us believes that we need to think constantly in order to control and manage our lives. At the beginning moving attention into the breath, body or senses for any length of time can feel like taking our hands off the steering wheel. It can feel scary.
Because of our belief that thinking is a very important activity that needs to be engaged in constantly, shifting attention into the present can also bring up resistance in the mind - thoughts might come up like, this is a waste of time, this is boring, what is the point of this? etc..
Essentially we are addicted to thinking and like any addiction it’s hard to let go of. It helps once we know that we’re trying to get something out of thinking, control and a sense of completion for example, that it can never give.
What can I expect to gain from mindfulness?
Many of our thoughts are repetitive and unhelpful at best and at worst, destructive. Mindfulness gives us a tool to recognize unhelpful thought patterns and move away from them (not by fighting them, but by noting and shifting attention away from them).
The same can be done with emotions. Negative emotions can be kept alive in our bodies through thought patterns (stories) that we continually tell ourselves. By recognizing the emotions in the body as feelings (feeling them instead of thinking about them) and taking attention away from the thoughts associated with them, the emotions can finally dissipate.
When mindfulness becomes more natural, there is more peace and joy in our lives. Patterns that were operating unconsciously and automatically become conscious and choice becomes available.
John Woychuk is a Canadian Certified Counsellor (CCC) with the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association. Feel free to contact us to book a no-cost initial consultation.