What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness as a word can be misleading as it does not mean a mind which is filled with thoughts. Nor does it mean a mind that is empty of thought. Instead it refers to present-moment awareness. It is a state in which you are focused on what is happening to you in the now. In open focus the practitioner trains her awareness on external sights, sounds and sensations. In closed focus he trains his awareness on a single feature: the breath, a number sequence, or a phrase repeated over and over.

Mindfulness and meditation

Mindful practice is really meditation. The only difference is that many types of meditation (but not all) come out of Hinduism, Buddhism or Christianity. Mindfulness, so-called, emphasises a secular practice. Used in the loose sense, ‘mindfulness’ (meaning present moment awareness) can also be achieved through music, yoga, tai chi, qi gong, the Feldenkrais method, and Binaural beats.

Judging from the earliest Hindu scriptures meditational disciplines date back at least 3500 years. The earliest known forms entailed control of the breath, still the most widely used mindfulness approach today.

The practice of mindfulness

This can vary from one day to the next. On one day you may enter into a deep, blissful state; on another you may find it difficult to detach from thought, and you might feel a bit restless. It is important to practice on a daily basis however. The basic discipline is to stay in one place for a while as you settle down the mind and it’s thoughts.

No one person’s experience will be the same as another’s so self-acceptance is important here. Descriptions also vary, but some common ones are reflected in the seven keys below.

7 keys to mindfulness

  • Awareness. The person is fully aware of being in her body, in the moment, now.
  • Observation. The individual watches the coming and going of thoughts, feelings, sensations, emotions, moods and external events without holding on to them.
  • Presence. The practitioner is fully present in consciousness. The opposite of absence, or sleep.
  • Attention. The person exercises neutral attentiveness to internal and external events.
  • Wakefulness. Sometimes ordinary consciousness is little different from absent-mindedness, in which the individual functions on automatic pilot, barely conscious of what is in fact happening. Mindfulness reverses this.
  • Non-attachment. The practitioner is no longer attached to thoughts or judgements, allowing them to come and go without becoming ‘sucked in’ to them and thereby losing awareness. It is important to realise that ‘non-attachment’ is not the same as ‘detachment’. While the former simply observes, the latter is a disconnected state.
  • Non-judgement. Mindfulness routines work on going with the flow. Judgements about whether one is ‘doing it the right way’ are discarded, as are other critical thoughts.

Attentional control in mindfulness

One important benefit from practicing mindfulness is greater attentional control. Meaning the ability to exercise choice and decision over which thoughts to enter into, and which thoughts to defuse. This is an important skill to acquire in overcoming anxiety.

Brain scans on Tibetan monks experienced in meditation reveal that brain areas devoted to attentional control were more active than in those less experienced. They were far less distracted by external noises when in the meditational state, and thus more able to deepen their focus on present moment awareness.

If you practice mindfulness for no other reason, then do it for that one.

Your free mindfulness tape

Here is a ten-minute mindfulness tape with a focus on relaxation created by me.


Mindfulness exercises

There are thousands of mindfulness/meditational tapes on the Insight Timer app here. Nearly all of them are free.

Photo by Keegan Houser on Unsplash


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