You’ve probably heard about mindfulness but how much do you really know about it? Here’s the lowdown on the concept, what it’s really about, and how you can incorporate it into your daily life. By April Zara Chua
Living in the 21st century means we’re constantly distracted and never really in the now. Where does mindfulness fit in all this? And amidst the current global health crisis, mindfulness is more relevant than ever. We get insight from Dr Cheah Yin Mee, who started her personal journey in mindfulness more than 20 years ago and retired to teach mindfulness three years ago.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is about developing an awareness of the present moment, the here and now. With greater awareness of what’s happening inside and around you, you can become more centred and less distracted. You become more aware of your thoughts and emotions and is able to make connections with your physical body and your mental thoughts.
While it was Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who brought mindfulness to the forefront, it was his American student, Jon Kabat-Zinn, who introduced secular mindfulness to a wider audience after he developed the Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programme.
Why is mindfulness important?
Mindfulness, when practised regularly and correctly, has powerful positive effects as it leads to better mental health and well-being through a stronger mind-body connection. Most of the time, we don’t actually pay enough attention to what’s happening to us — we’re constantly distracted by everything that’s happening around us. Because of this, we’re often unable to process the information that our body sends to the brain, and when we do, it’s often a bit late.
“Mindfulness helps people to become more aware of what’s happening in and around them. It helps you to pause and create a space in your mind so you’re better able to reflect on what’s happening and then give a more nuanced response instead of a habitual reaction,” Dr Cheah explains.
What are the benefits of mindfulness?
Mindfulness has three main benefits:
Cognitive benefits such as improvement in concentration and focus,
Social emotional benefits like better self-regulation and being able to control one’s emotions,
Well-being benefits leading to a reduction of anxiety and stress.
Mindfulness can also be practised by everyone, from schoolchildren to adults, across industries. “Secular mindfulness has been around for more than 30 years, and it actually started in healthcare,” she adds. Then it went into mental health to help people who are experiencing stress and anxiety. From there, it was adapted for use in schools, with children and adolescents, and eventually, into other areas, like business and sports.
What’s the difference between meditation and mindfulness?
“Meditation is a large umbrella term for all kinds of mindfulness practices,notes Dr Cheah. This umbrella covers more than just mindfulness; it also includes other concepts like gratitude, loving kindness, and compassion.
It’s also common for people to associate mindfulness with some religion, but modern mindfulness is not. Mindfulness is actually grounded in neuroscience research about how the brain works.
How do I practice mindfulness?
The good news is, everything we do can be done mindfully. Brushing your teeth is an example. Most people don’t give brushing much thought, going through it carelessly and often with wandering minds. Dr Cheah suggests mindful brushing: “Be aware of the sensation as you brush your teeth, taste the toothpaste, and feel the brush as it moves around your mouth.”
You can also practise mindfulness when sipping your tea by using all your senses — try looking at the tea, smelling it, tasting it, and you can even think about where the tea came from. These activities help you be more aware of what’s happening in the act of drinking tea. Tea drinking becomes a mindful activity.
Other things you can incorporate into your daily life includes mindful walking, mindful eating, mindful breathing, and mindful communicating. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to practising mindfulness — it counts as long as you are able to anchor yourself to the present moment and action, and can channel your thoughts to give your focus to that particular activity.
But before you jump into it, remember this
Being mindful may sound easy, but it’s something you need to practise regularly and consistently to reap its benefits. It’s not much different from sports training; one needs constant practice to improve and to be skilled. Approach mindfulness with an open mind and open heart, and don’t be discouraged if you find your thoughts wandering off when you attempt to meditate — it’s more important to be aware that your thoughts have wandered off. Once you recognise that, you can then bring yourself back to the present moment.
Mindfulness apps to get you started
Cheah Yin Mee holds a PhD in education and is the founder of Learning Ventures, an education consultancy firm that offers courses and provides consultancy services for the English language and teacher education. She founded Learning Ventures more than 20 years ago. Her formal training and practice in mindfulness began about seven years ago.