It would be easy to think that the opposite of mindfulness (mind-full-ness) would be mindlessness or an empty mind. But that would be wrong. In fact usually the opposite is true, which I know all too well.
I’m writing this post from a borrowed holiday house at the beach where I’m enjoying a week’s holiday with my family. Prior to that, my wife blessed me with a couple of days down here alone for some solitude and serenity.
I did really enjoy my time alone. I slept in, went for a big walk, explored, sat on the beach and read a book. I really appreciated the rare gift it was. Yet despite the idyllic location, the freedom of movement and the break from the kids, to be honest I didn’t fully relax except for a few special moments here and there. A part of my mind was constantly wondering what the boys were doing, hoping they were behaving, praying my wife’s back was holding up (she has chronic back pain). It took a constant, conscious effort not to worry and wonder about my wife and kids back home. Instead I tried to let go, relax and fully enjoy the blessing that was my time away alone. For some people this would come easily, and once upon a time it did for me too. But it wasn’t so easy and I didn’t always succeed. When I did, I guess you could say I was practising mindfulness.
Most people are familiar these days with the general principle of mindfulness. Mindfulness is actively paying attention to the here and now, being fully in the present. It is the practice of letting go of thoughts or worries about the past or the future, and instead allowing yourself to fully experience now – being mindful of the present.
The opposite of mindfulness, then, is what I often experience as a person who is currently battling anxiety. The opposite of mindfulness is not letting go of thoughts or worries about elsewhere and other times. It’s being distracted from the present by those other things. Rather than empty, the mind is chock-full of thoughts or worries about the past or future or elsewhere, and they don’t go away – even when we try very hard to get them to.
Of course we all have our attention hijacked by thoughts or worries at times. That’s normal. It’s thoughts and worries that are excessively severe or prevalent, to the point that they often rob one of the ability to enjoy the present, that is part of the common experience for many who have clinical anxiety.
The good news is that excessive worrying and mindfulness are two learned patterns of thinking. And patterns of thinking that are unhelpful can be unlearned while more helpful thinking patterns can be learned, with effort and help. In fact devoting time and effort to a regular practice of more mindful thinking can help reduce anxiety.
Mindfulness isn’t about ignoring the past and future. Instead the aim is to coach and train the mind to pay attention to the present more effectively when we choose to, without the need for massive conscious effort all the time. As explained in this video, it’s a gym workout for our “attentional muscle”, an area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. This enables a person to have more balance and control over their thoughts so that thinking about the past, future or anything beyond here and now becomes a matter of choice, rather than compulsive habit.
Hence my commitment this year to making mindfulness practice a consistent part of each day, as part of my goal of improving my physical and mental health.
In fact, BeyondBlue has summarised much of my whole intention for life improvement and management of my anxiety in 2016 in its infographic “Looking after your wellbeing” which it shared in this Facebook post. I’ve included the infographic below (used with permission).
Mindfulness isn’t just useful for helping people get mentally well from anxiety or depression. It’s just as relevant to mentally well people as a practice to help them stay well and enhance their experience of life.
A great introduction to mindfulness is the ‘Calm’ mobile phone app for iOS or Android and also the book (learn more about the book or app at calm.com). I love the book and the app provides a 7-day introduction to mindfulness, which I personally found very helpful. The app has now become my tool of choice to help keep me on track with my mindfulness practice each day.
I wonder, is there room for more mindfulness in your life?