What does “practicing” mindfulness mean?

This morning while I was meditating (a formal mindful practice) I noticed that my elbows were up on the arms of the chair, my hands were clasped and my shoulders were up around my ears!  Then I noticed I was scripting a plan for a piece of work I am about to start.  At this moment of noticing there was a choice to make – I returned to my breath, relaxed my posture and named all of this as a “thought”, thanked my mind and body for this awareness and refocused on my breath.  I experienced a moment of mindfulness and chose to keep practising in the hope I would experience more.

I noticed where I was – my mind noticed… in that very moment I became present.  I shifted from planning ahead, to the actual moment I was in.  This is the opposite of autopilot.  On autopilot my mind wanders all over the place to essential and wildly non-essential matters.  If my mind continues to practice that state of being I can’t imagine where I will end up whilst sitting in the chair and in life!  To practice means to repeat, to do something habitually, the actual application of the act – I do not want to keep practicing this wild wandering state of mind all of the time, though I do accept it has its place, I want to be able to choose.

Practicing mindfulness – noticing and choosing to bring my mind fully to what I choose, repeatedly, boosts my attention.  Research shows that this kind of regular practice, paying attention in the present moment without judgement, improves the neural pathway connections between the pre-frontal cortex and the amygdala.  This is important because the pre-frontal cortex is involved in executive thinking and planning and the amygdala is part of the limbic system, responsible for emotions and particularly responding to threat.  When there is a stronger connection between these two areas of the brain we can more quickly quieten our emotional response and decide how to act more effectively, a skill Daniel Goleman describes as essential for emotional intelligence.

Practising mindfulness by meditating every day, allows me to strengthen this connection.  Instead of panicking about the work plan this morning I was able to choose where my attention went, I practised sitting watching whatever arose without having to respond in that moment and returning to my breath.  I am training my attention so that it is more accessible and more effective to me when I am at work (and everywhere).  More mindfulness at work means I can respond more effectively and in this way I can grow my emotional intelligence over time.   The research also shows that along with mindfulness; emotional intelligence, resilience, compassion and empathy can all be cultivated – with practice. And that regular mindfulness practice is a means of strengthening these capacities.

People often tell me they don’t understand how or why meditation would help them at work.  Practice – training in this way – is often likened to physical training, gym for your brain.  I like to think of it like saving money, regular deposits into my awareness and attention bank – increasing my mental strength, my staying power, and making my goals of well-being and high performance more accessible.

If I am saving money I have to be conscious in my choices to spend or not, I need to have some discipline and exercise my capacity for delayed gratification, I choose to be in it for the longer term.  By saving money over time I increase my awareness of my money management and keep the longer term plan front of mind.  In time, the goal becomes more accessible and because it’s a habit it becomes easier, I don’t miss the money that I am saving in my daily life.  In the same way, practicing mindfulness in a formal routine way like meditating every day, becomes a habit.  It strengthens my capacity for attention, focus and clarity, all of which affects my well-being and my performance, making my goals more accessible.

We can not fully appreciate mindfulness by reading about it, practicing mindfulness is an experience.  Most of us have had moments of mindfulness in our lives, but the capacity to hold this state of mind grows with conscious practice.  Finding your own way to practice mindfulness is a process of doing, it is not an intellectual exercise.  Building any skill comes from practice, sitting every day for even a few minutes strengthens the neural pathways through repeated neural connection.   Well-being and high performance come from choosing to practice activities that are useful in the service of these goals.  Mindfulness in itself is purely about present open attention, without judgement, in the moment. Repeated behaviour effects our brain structure and function, it is the repetition that alters our brain’s behaviour.

Each morning I choose over and over again to return my attention to the practice of meditating, moment-to-moment.  This is mindfulness – having a capacity to notice and to choose where I put my attention, my energy. My capacity to be aware and to pay attention has risen exponentially since I moved from casual mind training practice to regular daily practice.  I can’t say I am never on autopilot, practicing mindfulness is an ongoing choice, but I can say that I am much more aware of my autopilot these days and my improving attention and focus has been liberating.  Strengthening my capacity for mindfulness through formal training is helping me choose more effectively and to be more mindful informally throughout the day.  I’d love to hear your stories of mindfulness and how you practice.

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This post was written by Sharee Johnson