What is mindfulness and why is it good for me?

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By Suzie Brown of Avista Mindfulness

In recent times the idea of mindfulness has really hit the mainstream as a way to help us be happier and healthier. So what’s this mysterious concept all about?

Probably the most important aspect of mindfulness to understand is that it’s about keeping your attention on the present moment as much as possible. This is great for our mental health because it reduces future thinking ie worrying about the future, excessive planning and so on; and it reduces dwelling on the past ie regretting or replaying difficult events over and over in our mind.

By dwelling more in the present those unhelpful mind habits are reduced, with the added bonus that we get to experience and enjoy what’s in the present moment more fully.

We can also be more effective if we are focused on the present – we get our work or jobs done better and faster because we are focused. Being present can also be great for our relationships because we are listening better and connecting more with our family, friends or workmates.

The skill of focus or concentration is a big part of being able to be present.

The other key skill of mindfulness is what we call awareness or the “observer-mind”. This is the ability to watch our body and our thoughts, emotions and mind habits as if from above, like a helicopter hovering above ourselves watching all our reactions. Being an observer of our mind and body gives us the space and clearer perspective to make wiser and more compassionate choices, rather than just reacting habitually or unconsciously to everything.

So how can we be more mindful and present? Practicing meditation as well as everyday mindfulness exercises is the way to build the skill of present moment awareness. We need to work at this skill and this takes time, like learning to play a musical instrument. Meditation, where we sit down for a set period of time each day to focus on the breath or other object, is where we really build this muscle of present awareness. It’s usually the only chunk of time we get to practice being both focused and aware of what’s going on in our mind and body.

Notice when I talk about meditation that I have not mentioned anything about emptying our mind. This is a real myth about meditation that can often turn people off because when they try to meditate and their mind is busy with thoughts they think they are bad at it! Eliminating thoughts or emptying the mind is not the point at all.

Meditation is both about focusing on something in the present (usually the breath) as well as practicing the awareness of what our mind is doing. The result of sitting quietly and focusing is that over time the rate of thinking will slow down and we will have a quieter mind and a more relaxed body. But paradoxically to achieve this we need to allow our thoughts to come and go without trying to stop the thinking. The more we relax and let things just happen, the more mindful and present we can be.

Suzie Brown teaches mindfulness meditation courses and workshops for the general public and in workplaces throughout Melbourne and Victoria. She writes a mindfulness blog and offers online courses through her site www.avistamindfulness.com.au.