“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Aristotle
Mindfulness is an innate human quality.
Mindfulness is an innate human quality (Kabat-Zinn, 2011) which varies in capacity and willingness for person to person (Brown & Ryan, 2003). People are naturally mindful. For example, you might be mindful of how you walk through a muddy area, or take time for yourself to sit and watch the waves roll into the shore (Brown & Ryan, 2003). This state of being mindful is also observed when we see someone totally immersed in what they are doing. According to Martin Seligman (2011) this kind of mindful state may promote wellbeing through engagement which also facilitates accomplishment.
This link between being mindful and engaging in an activity, as a way of feeling good, relates to Deci and Ryan’s self-determination theory of being motivated to satisfy ones need for accomplishment and autonomy. That is, we are naturally motivated to accomplish things, and be in control, because we know it makes us feel good, and we innately use mindfulness as a way of engaging. Furthermore, this also highlights Berridge and Kringelbach’s (2011) three basic underlying psychological drivers of wellbeing (wanting, liking, and learning) and in turn, it highlights the overlap between the hedonic and eudemonic levels of wellbeing (Ryan et al., 2013). That is, we mindfully engage in our desires as a way of making ourselves feel good.
Overall, we can see that human beings have an innate ability to know how to feel good. We may choose an enjoyable activity for an immediate feel good experience (hedonic wellbeing), or we may choose to accomplish something that may take longer, but will give us a feel good experience that is longer lasting because it’s more meaningful (eudemonic wellbeing). And whether we are consciously aware of it or not, we use forms of mindful concentration to accomplish these goals. For example, we go to the movies to feel good and if our mind wonders, we will bring it back to the present moment, to the movie, because we want to enjoy the storyline. Additionally, we also work or study, as a way of accomplishing what we need to feel good. If we are working on an assignment and our mind wonders, we will bring it back to the present moment, in order to continue completing our work, because we want to feel good through experiencing success. And according to Jon Kabat-Zinn, this is a basic form of mindfulness, or mindful living, because we are in a state of paying attention to the present moment, in a particular way, non-judgementally.
We can cultivate mindfulness.
While mindfulness is an innate experience, we can cultivate our ability to be mindful through formal training and therefore enhance our skills and ability to enjoy living in the present moment. Formal mindfulness meditation can also take on a sightly different style of thinking, or awareness. That is, rather than paying attention to what we are doing within the present moment, we are instead simply ‘aware’ of, or paying attention to our experience within the present moment. We are aware of our awareness. We are non-judgementally aware of our thoughts, sensations and emotions. We are watching ourselves, as an observer of our thoughts, sensations and emotions, in a compassionate, yet unattached way. We are formally practicing mindfulness through the mindset of self-realisation. For example, you may be sitting in a group and think, ‘This is really boring. I hate being here.’ And you may feel an emotional response, such as unhappiness. You may even start to feel uncomfortable in your chair. However, rather than attaching to those thoughts, emotions and sensations you are simply aware that you have experienced them, but you are also aware that YOU are not your thoughts, emotions and sensations. When they are gone, YOU are still here. Therefore, YOU are not reacting, or responding to them, you just let them all pass.
We use the breath as our anchor when we practice mindfulness. That is, whenever our mind wonders, we gently bring it back by bringing our focus to our breath. We may use inner dialogue to aide us. For example, ‘I am breathing in, I am breathing out’. Alternatively, we may simply follow our breath as it travels in and out of our body. Or, we may focus on just one area of the breaths cycle, for example, we pay attention to the air as it enter and leaves our nose. We are paying attention to feeling the difference between the cool air that enters and the warmer air that leaves. Or, we may keep our attention on the rise and fall of our diaphragm.
However, we are not our anchor, we are the entire ship wanting to enjoy the adventure. Therefore, we don’t stay anchored all the time. We simply drop the anchor when the sea has become too rough and our ship has begun to wonder off course. For example, I’m on task, paying attention to my work. Maybe, some thoughts are popping into my mind, but I’m just letting them pass as I continue to pay attention to my work. Then someone enters the room and says something that creates a lot of negative thoughts and emotions within me. I feel close to reacting, or maybe I do! And then I remember I want to experience smooth sailing, rather than be toss around in life’s storms. So, I recall how to get my ship back on course. I drop my anchor! If the storm is really bad, I may need to make those first few breaths deeper than normal. Once I feel calm returning, I return to my normal breathing pattern, still anchored, until I am ready to respond to that person in a positive way, or simply return paying attention to my work.
Detaching from all the thoughts, sensations and emotions.
By being able to compassionately let go of, or detach from all these thoughts, emotions and sensations, that we continually experience, we develop a space within us to simply ‘be’. We become more compassionate and understanding towards both ourselves and others. In time, as we cultivate this awareness, our mind will naturally settle and we will be able to live in the present moment, in a state of simply ‘being’ for longer periods of time. This occurs because we are no longer feeding, or reacting to all the thoughts, sensations and emotions that we constantly experience.
As a mind training technique, mindfulness is analogous to an art form. Through developing our ability to practice mindfulness we learn to simply allow the internal chatter of constant inner judgments and opinions expressed about everything to flow through the mind, without emotionally reacting to those thoughts, while also learning to re-focus our minds. In Buddhism this is called liberation because it is a kind of mental freedom derived from the self-achievement of cultivating the domain of being, rather than being overwhelmed by the constant stressors and emotional reactivity to certain situations in life (Kabat-Zinn, 2011).
Of course if we want to cultivate the domain of mindfulness, we must repeatedly practice. Therefore, we need to create schedules for ourselves, in order to develop a regular routine of meditating, that in turn will become a habit.
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Berridge, K. C., & Kringelbach, M. L. (2011). Building a neuroscience of pleasure and well-being. Psychology of Well-Being; Theory, Research and Practice, 1:3. Retrieved from http://link.springer.com.article/10.1186/2211-1522-1-3#page-2
Brown, K. W., & Ryan, R. M. (2003). The benefits of being present: Mindfulness and its roles in psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 94(4), 822-848. doi: 10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.522 http://selfdeterminationtheory.org/SDT/documents/2003_BrownRyan.pdf
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2011). The Healing Power of Mindfulness. The Tucker Foundation and Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Centre. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_If4a-gHg_I
Ryan, R. M., Curren, R. R., & Deci, E. L. (2013). What humans need: Flourishing in Aristotelian philosophy and self-determination theory.
Waterman, A. S. Waterman (Eds.). The best within us: Positive psychology perspectives on eudaimonia (pp. 57-75). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association. doi:10.1037/14092-004
Seligman, M (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness. New York, NY: Free Press.