I keep hearing about mindfulness and how we need to be more mindful, do things mindfully, live a mindful life. But what is mindfulness, anyway? It would be easy to think of it as another thing to put on your “to do” list and check off each day along with washing the dishes or doing the laundry, but it is so much more than that!
I think of mindfulness as a way of life, or at least a way I strive to live my life. Usually when we hear about mindfulness, it’s in terms of a practice, whether it’s meditation or mindful eating or some other form of cultivating mindfulness. And, as with many things we practice, we might get better at it over time, but I’m not sure it can ever be perfected, simply built upon.
Mindfulness is not about using our mind and intellectualizing things. It’s not about over-thinking or really thinking at all, but it’s also not about stopping thinking from happening – I’m not even sure that would be possible. Mindfulness, as I understand it, is taking the time to be present in all of our daily activities and to experience things fully, in contrast to how we usually do things. And in the process, we observe how our brain and body work together and how our thinking influences our actions in both positive and negative ways. We also start to notice the gaps between our thoughts, and then we can change our actions, and eventually change our thinking, too.
Here’s an example: Normally when I wash dishes or send a text or play with my pets, I’m thinking about what I will do next or what needs to be added to the grocery list or how pleased I am about an interaction that I had earlier in the day. In essence, I’m not really doing what I am doing. I’m not present with my actual experience, and I’m not really paying attention to what I am doing. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing this, and, in fact, we do it all the time. Mindfulness, however, challenges us to be present and do only what we are doing. When we practice mindfulness we simply pay attention to how we are washing the dishes, and when the thoughts about what happens next try to push their way in, we notice them, take a breath, and return to washing the dishes with our full attention.
It sounds really easy, and it is, but as with most things work practicing, it’s very difficult to do well. I cultivate mindfulness by trying to present when I’m driving, when I’m having conversations, when I’m gardening, when I’m doing just about anything. I’ve been practicing mindfulness for about 18 years now, and I’d like to think that I’m pretty good at it, but most days I don’t do very well, so I keep on trying. It’s a work in progress.