Mindfulness for Everyday Living

‘Mindfulness’ is a term rich in meaning. Conceptually, it can refer to a mental quality, a psychological process, a family of contemplative practices, an ethical orientation to life or a phenomenological enquiry.

 

It is better understood as an experience. Cultivated through specific meditation techniques, it is the sustained, deliberate awareness of the presenting moment – what is happening as it is happening – imbued with an attitude of tenderness, openness and curiosity.

Note there are two elements here. Sustained, deliberate awareness suggests an alert and receptive attentiveness – one that is stable, undistracted and knowing. A tender, open, curious attitude implies qualities of patience, friendliness and impartiality.

 

Combined in a dynamic harmony, these two elements foster a presence of mind that is welcoming to whatever is arising, abiding and passing away in the presenting moment. Orientating oneself to ‘given experience’ in this way is to enter fully into the aliveness of the ever-changing ‘now’.

 

Benefits of Mindfulness

 

Participants on recognised eight-week courses, such as the Mindfulness for Everyday Living course that runs at Brighton Therapy Centre, regularly experience the nourishing ‘fruits’ of practice. For example, being more sensitive to the moment-to-moment experience of mind and body confers a greater appreciation of the richness and vibrancy of life.

 

Particular changes that many people report after a couple of months of practice include improved sleep, greater mental focus, enhanced creativity, renewed ability to handle life’s stresses and improvements in relationships. Why might simple contemplative practices facilitate such profound results in a relatively short space of time?

 

One explanation is that mindfulness functions as a protective mental quality. By facilitating a ‘clear view’ of the moment-to-moment flow of one’s experience, mindfulness ‘guards against’ the arising of potentially negative and injurious mental states, so allowing greater psychological flexibility and wellbeing. It is important here to distinguish between protectiveness and defensiveness. The latter is a ‘not wanting to know’, while mindfulness always inclines towards ‘wanting to know’.

 

Gatekeeper of the Mind

 

Mindfulness as a protective factor was first outlined in the ancient Buddhist simile of the gatekeeper:

 

“Imagine a fortress, at a frontier, which has a wise and experienced gatekeeper. The function of this gatekeeper is to keep out those they don’t know and to let in those they do. This is for the protection of those within and to ward off those without… In the same way, someone who is mindful is alert and able to call to mind even things that were done and said long ago. With mindfulness as their gatekeeper, such a one maintains what is helpful and benevolent, abandons what is unhealthy, and looks after oneself well” (Nagara Sutta, AN 7.63).

 

Here, being ‘mindful’ connotes ‘taking care’. This is, incidentally, the word’s most common English rendering despite its recent and gradual shift in meaning towards something akin to ‘awareness’. It is not by coincidence that protective care-taking is common to all contemporary mindfulness-based psychotherapies.

 

New Perspectives

 

A prime example is Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), a well-established, evidence-based treatment of which Mindfulness for Everyday Living is one variant. The first key discovery made by the cognitive psychologists who developed MBCT was that for people who had been depressed in the past a small downward shift in mood could lead to a disproportionate escalation in negative thinking, which in turn could easily trigger a deeper downward spiral into depression.

 

Their second key discovery was that this relapsing process could be prevented if people were able to recognise their thought patterns relatively early on. In so doing, they were able to ‘stand back’ and gain better balance and perspective on their experience.

 

These two discoveries comprise the psychotherapeutic rationale for mindfulness. Learning to be mindful in daily life allows you to deliberately access and empower your internalised gatekeeper, cool-headed and wise, who quietly monitors your interactions with the world to enhance your sense of contentment and to diminish your potential for suffering. As a result, life smooths out and becomes an easier, more purposeful and vivid ride.

Thanks to Richard Gilpin for this blog post

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