Mindfulness is ’paying attention to the present moment deliberately and non-judgmentally.’ This is perhaps the most widely-accepted definition.
If you were to ask a room of 30 people to practise mindfulness for a minute, and then asked them what they’d been mindful of, chances are you’d get a variety of answers, ranging from mindfulness of ambient noise, such as birdsong or traffic, to mindfulness of the decor in a room, the sensation of the breeze blowing through the window, or the inhaling and exhaling of breath. Any of these are valid mindfulness experiences.
When we meditate, we choose a specific object of meditation and try to stick with it. That object may be physical – very commonly an aspect of breathing, such as the sensation of our breath at the tip of the nostrils as we inhale or exhale. The object could be a lot more subtle, such as a visualisation or even mind itself.
Meditation is therefore the application of mindfulness to a specific object for a specific period of time.
How are meditation and mindfulness related? By way of illustration, if we regularly go to a gym, yoga class or engage in other physical improvement activities, we tend to focus on the detail of what we do during our sessions. Little by little we may add weights, repetitions or our ability to hold a pose correctly. If we can keep up the discipline for a few months, we detect meaningful changes and are encouraged to do more.
Although the mechanics of what we do at the gym or in class are our main concern, in reality we’re mostly doing it for the 23 hours a day we’re not in training. We may monitor our regime with keen attention, but the main benefit is that our improved cardiovascular fitness, capacity for weight-bearing or flexibility means we can cope with much greater ease with whatever life hands us.
Precisely the same applies to the practice of meditation.
We may begin on the recommendation of a doctor, or in seeking our own solution to stress, depression or anxiety, or in response to a more general wish to enjoy greater mental well-being. If we can keep up the practice for a couple of months, encouraged by our teacher, we’ll inevitably experience the benefits. And while we may monitor our regime according to the minutes we spend on it each day, the types of meditation in which we engage and/or our subjective experience while doing it, the real benefit is in the 23 hours and 50 minutes a day we’re not meditating.
Meditation enables us to deal with life’s inevitable ups and downs with greater mindfulness, along with providing associated benefits—equanimity, inner peace, spontaneity and zest for life, to name just a few.
Regular meditation therefore supports a more mindful life in the same way that going to the gym supports a fitter life. We can practise mindfulness without meditating regularly, just as we can try to get fit through incidental exercise. But it seems a bit pointless. For the sake of just ten minutes a day we might as well benefit from a daily meditation session.
What are the benefits of a more mindful life? In a word, incalculable!
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