What Is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness—the practice of paying attention and staying present in the moment—has increasingly gained popularity in recent years. But what exactly is mindfulness and how do you use it?
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After spending the last year researching and writing my new book, Outsmart Your Smartphone: Conscious Tech Habits for Finding Happiness, Balance, and Connection IRL, I now believe this is because the more our world is consumed by technology, the harder it seems to be mindful. Instead of spending even a second alone, staying present with our thoughts, we reflexively turn to our cellphones for entertainment, comfort, or distraction. Many of us are on our phones at work, in the bathroom, and even during sex—moments that in the past might have been spent unintentionally being mindful.
So how do learn how to stay present, aware, and accepting? In other words, how do we become more mindful?
What Is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness encourages us to be present and pay attention to all things—what's going on with us but also what’s going on with other people, communities, and society at large. When we start paying attention, we start to see whatever we’ve been intentionally, or unintentionally, ignoring.
For some of us this can mean we uncover sadness over loss, rage about a culture that mistreats the down-and-out, or distress about the suffering of others. Or, it can mean we discover unconditional love for our romantic partner, experiences that give us true joy, or pleasure in the tiny things we never realized had so much value.
Often, when we become more present, both the darkest and brightest parts of our lives come roaring into view. For these reasons, mindfulness can be challenging, but also impactful on our lives.
How To Make Mindfulness Work for Us
Without effective ways to handle the difficult emotions and insights that emerge when being mindful, this experience can be uncomfortable or downright damaging. This is why it’s so important to first be equipped with other emotional skills—namely, resilience skills, self-compassion skills, and positivity skills—skills that help you handle challenging emotions.
When you develop the skills that enable you to use mindfulness effectively, it can really be helpful. All those buried and lurking negative emotions bubble to the surface where they can finally be dealt with, perhaps for the very fist time. And our brand new awareness of the experiences of others lead us to live ethical, value-driven, purposeful lives. The result? We receive an abundance of happiness, joy, and feelings of connectedness.
So you see, happiness can arise from mindfulness, not as a result of self-awareness alone, but as a side effect of our growing ability to see (and correct) the true causes of the personal, inter-personal, and societal challenges that are preventing our happiness and well-being.
An Example of a Mindful Moment
To find out for myself what was causing my anxiety, I decided that I would no longer pull out my phone when I was alone at a restaurant, bar, or other social event. I’d just sit there and be mindful, staying present, often with anxiety, discomfort, and unease.
When I first started this practice, the anxiety was intense. It was amazing how strong the urge was to just abandon my mindful moments. But instead of letting fear drive me, I just sat, allowing my emotions to come and eventually, go.
Each time I engaged in a mindful moment, there was less anxiety than the previous time. When the thoughts came into my head, rather than judging them or avoiding them, I just kind of observed them with curiosity.
What to Do with Mindfulness
The thing about being present and really paying attention is that we learn things about ourselves and our world that we might have been avoiding, perhaps with good reason. But we can deal with these thoughts and feelings once the come into the light.
When we try to just cope with symptoms—like anxiety—the causes remain intact. Because mindfulness can help us better uncover and get at the causes, it can be a more effective way to increase happiness, if done correctly. And taking this more social, cultural approach to addressing our issue is often more rewarding because it helps us move forward while simultaneously helping others move forward.
How to Be Mindful
Even though mindfulness is theoretically possible to practice anywhere, that doesn’t mean it comes easy.
To be more aware: If you're mad, ask what you're really mad at. If you're sad, ask what it is you're really sad at. If you're anxious, ask what it is you're anxious about. Don't settle for, "I'm mad at Bob because he was rude to me." Why does that rudeness matter? Why now? Why him? What is happening inside of you that makes you mad?
To be more open: Try not to push away unpleasant thoughts or emotions that arise. You might feel scared to cry in front of others or yell when you're angry. Try not to stifle those emotions. Instead ask what might be leading you to stifle them.
To be more accepting: Try to stop judging or censoring your feelings and thoughts. Seriously, stop it! You may have heard judgy statements like “Boys don’t cry” or “You’re too sensitive” or “Get over it”, and you will, very likely, continue to hear these things. All you can do is refuse to judge yourself (or others), for having emotions. Emotions are natural and we all deserve ours.
About Dr. Tchiki Davis
Dr. Davis is founder of The Berkeley Well-Being Institute. After getting her PhD in psychology at Berkeley, she started creating online content & programs to boost well-being—some of these have reached more than a million people. As author of Outsmart Your Smartphone, and contributor to Psychology Today, The Greater Good Science Center, and Shine Text, Dr. Davis aims to share her insights on happiness & health with people all across the world. Learn more about Dr. Davis.