We’ve all been there. You’re 26 pages into a book, midway through a paragraph, and you realise you have no idea what’s just happened during the last whole chapter. Rather than reading and registering each word, you’ve just been scanning the lines.
Swept up by the pace of life in the 21st century, it’s perfectly normal to feel that your mind is elsewhere throughout the day. You might be in a 10am meeting, but your mind is on that dinner party on the weekend. Just as we can lose track of the storyline in a book, we can lose track of ourselves and overlook what’s happening in the present moment.
Mindfulness, however, can present us with a solution. “I think there’s a real need for it,” says Zoë Clews, one of the UK’s leading hypnotherapists who specialises in mindfulness. “We’ve never been exposed to as much noise as we are now. We’re living an increasingly unnatural lifestyle. Perhaps many years ago we wouldn’t have needed mindfulness, but now there’s a call for it.”
What is mindfulness?
A grounding exercise, mindfulness forces us to re-engage with the present moment with full awareness of what we’re doing, how we’re feeling, and what we’re thinking. It’s a systematic method of focusing your attention on the here and now, free from judgement. Mindfulness isn’t static, but a state of being which is always in flux. But to practise mindfulness isn’t to say you’re never permitted lapses of awareness, because as human beings we’re never fully undistracted.
Mindfulness has been around for thousands of years, with roots in a range of religious and secular groups. While it can be traced back to traditions in Judaism, Islam and Christianity, most Western practitioners and teachers tap into the mindfulness that originates in Buddhist and Hindu traditions. The word ‘mindfulness’ itself is a translation of sati, a word from the Pali language of ancient India, in which many original Buddhist texts were written. It roughly translates to ‘awareness’.
Mindfulness in a modern context
One way to think about mindfulness, Clews says, is as a “window of tolerance”. While we often live in a place of reactivity, we all have this “window of tolerance” within us. “It’s a place where we feel cool, calm, collected, easy and connected,” Clews says. “When we’re in our window of tolerance, we’re able to respond from a really positive place.”
When we’re not in our window of tolerance, we’re in “one of the four trauma defence states”. These are fight (anger), flight (anxiety), freeze (shock), and fawn (co-dependent people pleasing). “When we’re in one of these, we don’t make decisions,” Clews says. “We react really badly and we panic. What mindfulness does is bring you back into that window of tolerance. From there, you’re able to respond rather than react. It’s about slowing down and making conscious decisions from a place that isn’t triggered.
"For example, take someone who has a history of losing their temper. Say they’re in relationship and they’ve had past relationships implode because they get triggered easily. They can work with mindfulness to help stop that pattern. It’s like a mini intervention on yourself by training yourself to take a pause. So you might get triggered by your partner and think: I’ve been here before. But rather than go from 0-100, you step back and use the tools you have to walk away and come back later when you're in a calmer place. It’s when we’re triggered that the relationship can start to break down."
However, mindfulness also includes doing things like putting the right food and nutrients into our bodies, and getting adequate rest and play. “When you do this, you start to build up a sort of muscle around it,” Clews says. “We will get pulled out of our window of tolerance, especially at the moment. But if you’ve built up enough of a muscle around it, then you’ve got this underlying foundation you can always return to.”
What is mindfulness good for?
One of the best things about mindfulness is that it’s useful for almost everyone. “It’s fantastic for sleep, anxiety, anger-related issues, and just about anything you can think of really,” Clews says. “Mindfulness gives you space in between your thoughts and that pause to choose how to react. If someone asks you to make a big decision, you can do it from a place of mindfulness rather than panic. And since anger and anxiety are very prevalent at the moment, I think it’s a fantastic tool to be able to use.”
Mindfulness vs meditation
Often, people conflate mindfulness with meditation. However, meditation is simply one way of practicing mindfulness. Clews says: “Meditation is something you can do alongside mindfulness. But mindfulness is almost like a place within you, whereas meditation is putting it into practice.”
By nature, all humans possess mindfulness. We just need to learn how to tap into it. Many scientists believe mindfulness has the potential to be transformative for society, a free treatment to heal many of our modern issues. Some of the various benefits of mindfulness include:
You can savour life’s pleasures as they happen and have a greater capacity to deal with difficulty by forcing yourself to accept your experiences rather than avoiding them.
Improved physical health.
Scientific research has found evidence that mindfulness techniques have the ability to treat heart disease and high blood pressure, relieve stress, soothe chronic pain, improve sleep and performance, and much more.
Better mental health.
In recent years, psychotherapists, particularly those who specialise in cognitive behavioural therapy, have found that prescribing meditation and mindfulness can help ease multiple mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and OCD. This is because mindfulness encourages you to learn how to control your feelings and emotions, preventing the whirlwind of overthinking.
Practical tips to get started with mindfulness
Mindfulness is easy to practise and you can do it from the comfort of your own home. Here are some tips to help you tune into mindfulness throughout your day, so that it almost becomes second nature.
Firstly, all you need is time and a quiet enough space. Dead silence isn’t necessary as it can be helpful to learn to dismiss the odd noise and re-find your focus.
While it’s a lot easier said than done, aim to focus on the present moment and suspend judgement. Our minds often get carried away with thoughts and if you’re new to the practice, these will crop up fairly often. If and when judgements form in the mind, simply take a mental note of them and try to refocus on a state of calm.
Practise this gentle recentring of the mind over and over again each time, and soon enough you’ll be able to transfer this skill into any part of your daily routine.
Recently, the tech world has also tapped into the mindfulness trend and there are now multiple apps you can download to help you kickstart your journey. We’d recommend the Headspace, Calm, Aura, and Sattva apps, and podcasts such as Untangle.
You’ll notice how you’re gradually able to practise mindfulness for longer durations each time you do it, until the feeling of calm and control can be harnessed throughout your day-to-day. The best thing about mindfulness is that we can use it anytime and anywhere, so give these tips a go and feel your wellbeing boost before you even know it.
If you’re interested in learning more about Zoë Clews, her practice, and her work with mindfulness, you can find out more here.