Practicing mindfulness gives us the ability to be happy and content, no matter what our circumstances. Based on my own experience with practicing mindfulness, it is the only thing that grows that ability.
It is also through practicing mindfulness that we discover a sense of ‘self beyond the self’ – a connection to something greater than our concerns. You can call this mysterious state your spiritual awareness. Developing that capacity to step outside of ourselves is important: it’s how we develop wisdom, clarity and maturity.
As we get glimpses of a deeper happiness through our mindfulness practice, the practice becomes a priority to do. For me, this became a priority for me in my early thirties, as I began to see how being incessantly distracting by thinking was negatively affecting me in my life.
This post contains my observations and experience on how practicing mindfulness fundamentally improves your experience of life.
‘Mindfulness isn’t difficult. We just need to remember to do it.’ – Sharon Salzburg
What actually is mindfulness?
Jon Kabat-Zinn, a world authority on mindfulness, defines it as paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally. These are the three elements you need to remember.
- On purpose
- In the present moment
- Non judgmental
The news anchor, Dan Harris, who has written a book (which features in this list of recommended self-help books) about mindfulness, defines it as “the skill of knowing what’s happening in your head at any given moment without getting carried away by it”.
Before we look at how to actually practice mindfulness, I want to talk briefly about the consequences of a non-mindful way of life.
What happens when we aren’t mindful
The problem is, our minds, if left undirected, make us unhappy in a variety of ways.
It is not our actual minds that are inherently flawed; our minds are like gardens that can be blossomed, otherwise practices such as mindfulness wouldn’t make a difference. Rather, it is our mind’s qualities that we routinely neglect to notice, and then seek to manage. Such qualities include:
- bias towards negativity
- limitations inherent in worldviews
- the role of the unconscious side of our minds in our waking lives.
Without practicing mindfulness, we are completely identified with our thoughts or emotions. Identified just means we are caught up in them. This works okay if we happen to be enjoying a pleasant experience, but not so much during times of stress and anguish.
Overall, it is unstable to be identified, because it means peace and harmony are dictated to by our shifting external experience.
Link between mindfulness, spirituality and happiness
You may not associate happiness with spirituality. I know I didn’t for most of my life, but I was taking a narrow interpretation of the word. Growing a spiritual awareness is a very practical thing we can all do for our psychological wellbeing.
One way of looking at spirituality is a sense of something other than self. Think about the last time you had a concern that wasn’t egotistical in nature – i.e. related to what you wanted, needed, was looking forward to, hated, disliked, achieved, or did for others with underlying self-centredness. It might have been a long time! Breaks from egotistical concerns are a relative rarity for a lot of us.
The truth is, it doesn’t make us deeply happy to simply spend life striving endlessly. It works for a while, but at some point, most of us question the meaning of our lives and how we spend them. This is the start of the spiritual search, and that can lead us to some interesting experiences.
Spirituality is the search for truth, and practicing mindfulness is what enables us to access the truth, although unfortunately never for long. That truth is that despite appearances, our consciousness doesn’t completely reside in the thinking self. There is a part that can be aware of the thinking self. When we practice mindfulness, we cultivate the presence of the observer self in life and free ourselves from the more limiting aspects of our minds.
‘The ego’ – how practicing mindfulness helps us to know it
It has become popular to talk disparagingly about the ego. Our egos, though, are not bad. We all have egos, they are simply our self-constructs; the identities we assumed at a very early age and forget we existed apart from. This is why the ego is often called ‘the calculated self.’
Many of us have no awareness of being anything other than this ego self. And certainly if you haven’t ever thought about thinking, then you are exclusively operating from your ego perspective. It is a problem.
I personally had no concept of this prior to a few years ago, but it is possible to step outside of the ego for brief glimpses and doing so feels very relaxing. For me, that is the fundamental necessity of practicing mindfulness: for the opportunity to see ourselves apart from our egos if only for a few moments at a time.
Training in mindfulness – the ‘Observing Self’
I have already referred to the thinking and observing self a few times. My introduction to this distinction was in Russ Harris’s book, The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living, which is also on the latest books list, and I have written a longer article about. I like the distinction because it really enabled my mindfulness practice.
The thinking self is the part of the mind that is responsible for all your thoughts, beliefs, memories, judgments, fantasies. It’s the ego. The observing self is the part that is able to be aware of whatever you are thinking or feeling or doing at any moment and it is egoless. Mindfulness is training yourself to operate from the vantage point of the observing self.
Many people initially practicing mindfulness choose to use labeling to help them to toggle switch to the observing self. ‘Thinking about x now’. ‘Feeling anger now.’ ‘This is called worrying about an illness’. And ‘this is called being blamed for something I didn’t do’. Or ‘this is called disappointment’. You may find labeling useful for driving a wedge between you and your thoughts.
One of the great things about mindfulness is you can do it anytime, anywhere.
If the practice is totally unfamiliar to you, I suggest you formalize a mindfulness practice until your brain is trained to do it. Commit to a certain part of the day, or a certain activity you do each day, spent in a state of mindfulness. Use your commute to and from work, for example.
For me, I try to spend most of my day in a state of mindfulness. I enjoy varying success, but if I can spend periods of the day just observing my thoughts rather than being in them, that is always a better day.
The difference between mindfulness and meditation
Meditation, which is different to mindfulness, complements the practice. When we meditate, the goal (if there is one) is to notice when we have become distracted by thought, and steer our awareness back to something neutral, usually the breath. When we are practicing mindfulness however, there is no directing element as our ‘job’ is simply to observe.
The meditation muscle helps you to practice mindfulness. So I recommend that you combine practicing mindfulness with five minutes of meditation each day.
Four ways practicing mindfulness helps to free us from low grade suffering each day
The benefits of practicing mindfulness spring from the same basic truth: that we are not our thoughts or habitual emotional responses. We can choose to be peaceful and content whatever is going on in life.
Here are four specific truths that you awaken to once you start practicing mindfulness.
1. Most of our opinions aren’t that useful
We have opinions about ourselves, and opinions about the world around us. Have you ever wondered what their purpose is?
Maybe you are not aware of your opinions about yourself. The volume on our self-talk gets turned up with the practice of mindfulness. Our self-talk affects things like our confidence and esteem and the way we carry ourselves. When we become aware of negative self-talk, gradually, we can begin to abandon it.
And what about opinions about others and the world? These do not hold the significance that we attribute to them. Also, they are rarely about other people and tell us more about ourselves.
I can tell you that for me, if I notice myself thinking negatively about other people or a situation, it usually tells me that I am feeling tired or stressed. Now I can notice that; before practicing mindfulness, not so much. Similarly, when I notice feeling irrationally upset by someone’s actions, I am able to question whether my hidden self was activated. These are the opportunities that mindfulness allows.
In his book the Untethered Soul, Michael Singer writes “You are capable of ceasing the absurdity of listening to the perpetual problems of your psyche. You can put it to an end.” Thank goodness, this has proven to be true in my own life.
2. We can easily spend the day being dictated to by our attachments
We are straying now into terminology from Buddhism. Attachments come in two forms: attractions and aversions.
Examples of ‘attractive’ attachments include smiling faces, notification alerts, sunny and dry weather. Examples of aversions include being ignored, the sounds of construction work, bad coffee.
We can wind up making our whole lives about running from pain and clinging to pleasure. This experience of being at one with our attachments usually works against us for things like attaining our deeper goals.
After being ridden roughshod by your attachments enough times, the practice of detachment becomes an appealing solution. Detachment is a specific mindfulness practice of noticing when you have become attached, and eventually avoiding getting caught up in the experience. Eventually, attachments become less impactful on our mood and state of mind.
3. We use specific reality buffers between ourselves and life
Psychological defense mechanisms (PDMs), from psycho-dynamic theory, are emotional buffers we use unconsciously to filter reality. The psychologist who produced the modern survival manual on PDMs is Joseph Burgo (here is an article based on the book). Briefly, Burgo outlines how we defend for ‘three areas of psychological concern’:
- Bearing need and dependency as an inevitable part of relationships.
- Managing intense emotions.
- Developing a sense of self-esteem.
A list of PDMs we use to protect ourselves are:
- Repression and denial.
- Displacement and reaction formation.
- Narcissism, blaming and contempt (the defences against shame).
These are a whole new language to learn. But once you know them, you can recognise them in yourself quickly and easily, and you may be able to stop yourself from acting out. Again, it’s not really possible without mindfulness.
4. We all move our own cheese
My mindfulness practice has helped show me when I am least present, and how exactly I am not present.
Everyone has a thing or things that they do. For me, I plan a lot for the future in small ways, all the time. By default, I am not present in the moment.
Your mindfulness practice will help you to become aware of your personal barriers to feeling pleasure and satisfaction.
If we are going to practice mindfulness, it needs to offer us practical benefits that we can easily perceive.
For me, the most profound benefit I feel is the ability to be happy every single day, and to meet the challenges in my life with strength. Consequently, I believe that practicing mindfulness is the most practical thing we can do to handle life better.
The ultimate goal of practicing mindfulness is to move us away from interpreting reality as part of our ongoing narratives, and to see things more clearly. Without the distortions of the mind, many of us find we are significantly happier.
I encourage you to begin practicing mindfulness if you haven’t already.