Mind Full or Mindful?

Two faces in profile

Judy Hunter is a Child Mental Health + Well-Being Specialist with her own consulting company, Childhood Matters NZ. She offers a range of services including mindfulness work with kids, teens and educators - and Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation. Judy also works part time at the Hawke’s Bay School for Teenage Parents offering parent education and support. She is on the National Executive Committee of the Infant Mental Health Association Aotearoa New Zealand (IMHAANZ) and convenes the Hawke’s Bay IMHAANZ Regional Group. You can contact Judy and find out more about her work at www.childhoodmattersnz.org.

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness seems to be the word on the street these days. But what is it really and how can you get some of this hot new commodity…

The definition I like the most comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn, the man credited with bringing mindfulness to the Western world. He says: ‘Mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.’

So mindfulness is being open to what it happening in the moment - without labelling it – and being kind to yourself and others. For me it’s also about creating a pause between something happening and your reaction to it; a space where you can choose your response (if any) rather than simply reacting.

I find that in order to be really clear about what mindfulness is, it can be helpful to know what it is not. It’s not the same thing as meditation (- see below for more clarity on this). It's not a religion or anything to do with politics and it’s not a theory - because it can only be experienced through practice. Crucially, it’s not about zoning out or stopping your thoughts. In fact, it’s the opposite: having (gentle) control of your mind - and choosing to direct your attention to where you want it at any given moment. I sometimes sell this to kids as being like a Jedi Mind Warrior - without the being able to read other peoples’ mind part.

The difference between meditation and mindfulness is this: Meditation is where you (usually) sit and focus your attention on one thing - your breathing, a body scan or another formal meditative focus. Mindfulness is when you bring the same kind of improved attention that you might get from a formal practice like meditation to everyday situations.

This involves directing your full and non-judgemental attention to the activity you’re undertaking at a particular moment - it might be washing the dishes, brushing your teeth, chatting with a friend or studying. In this way mindfulness is a by-product of a formal meditation practice but you don’t need a formal meditation practice to live mindfully.

If mindfulness had a mantra, it would be ‘notice, notice, notice’. I find this really handy to remember - mostly because it takes the pressure off having to do anything other than simply be aware of what is happening. When you ask yourself just to ‘notice’, you don’t have to change anything and you don’t have to react. For me, it’s been liberating to discover that it is not necessary to react to everything I notice!

Why is it important?

While ‘being in the moment’ may sound easy, in practice most of us live such busy, tech-heavy lives that it can be a struggle to make any moment mindful in the day. Additionally our brains love to jump from thought to thought (often called the Monkey Mind), and asking it to be present in the now - rather than think about the past or the future - can feel like to trying to stop a runaway train with your bare hands.

The World Health Organisation has been warning for some time that chronic stress is on the rise and is now calling stress the health epidemic of the 21st century The effect of ongoing stress on mental and physical health can take a large toll, and not just on an individual, but their family, friends and workplaces too. 

One reason touted for this rise in stress levels globally is the development and increasing availability of smart technology - which means we can be digitally connected to our work, education, entertainment and social realms 24/7. While the growth of the internet and the many devices now on offer have bought many benefits, it’s fair to say this ‘smart technology’ has bought some negative consequences too. 

The research data in this area is growing and results don’t look flash: it’s been reported that most people check their phones every six minutes and that, during the course of just one day, many of us crowd our brains with more data than they were ever designed to experience. Oh, and even moderate phone use by parents can have negative effects on their young children’s behaviour and attention spans. There’s now even a word for this: ‘technoference’.

A report from the University of California has said, "Our colossal consuming habits are not only crowding out essential neurological downtime, but they’re creating a chemical addiction that has interest in little else. When we consume media - from watching TV to surfing the Net, and from playing videogames to using social media - we’re triggering the brain chemical dopamine. Dopamine creates a ‘high’, and we are wired to do what it takes to maintain this elevated state. When the dopamine levels decrease, we begin to look for diversions that will restore the high." (from www.kqed.org/mindshift/20579/the-importance-of-teaching-mindfulness)

Why should I try it?

Mindfulness provides an antidote to our busy lives - as well as (sometimes much needed) attention and focus training for tired, frazzled minds. When you gently and repeatedly ask your mind to come back to what it is you want it to focus on - the breath, your bush walk, the piece of chocolate you’re eating - you are strengthening the muscle of your mind. And when you slow things down and increase your awareness - greater appreciation and even the chance to make changes can follow.

The now considerable body of research on mindfulness shows that practicing it can reduce stress, anxiety, emotional reactivity, rumination, psychological distress and time spent off task. And it can increase coping abilities, self-regulation, working memory capacity, decision making skills, working relations, relationship satisfaction, self-insight, immune functioning and can increase the length of telomeres - which predict how long your life span will be. (Information from American Psychological Association, ‘Empirically supported benefits of mindfulness’). That’s quite the list of achievements!

And, as one wise woman said: Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes - including you.” Annie Lamot

And one wise man: "You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn how to surf" - Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Things to try:

Luckily getting started is easy, in the sense that you don’t need any fancy equipment, you don’t need to go anywhere special and you don’t need to pay any money. Unluckily, as we have discovered, our minds aren’t always so keen to be lassoed and so you will need to remember that mindfulness is a practice and there is always another chance to have another go. 

In an attempt at humour, this is how to start: 

Step One. When possible, do just one thing

Step Two. Pay full attention. 

Step Three. When your mind wanders, gently bring it back. 

Step Four. Repeat Step Three, several million times.


And now for some actual practices to try: 

Mindful Breath Awareness is a great place to start - and even though it sounds like it might be easy, if it's your first time it's likely you'll be surprised at how fast your mind wanders. In mindfulness (and brain science), practice makes permanent in terms of brain structure ... so try it daily for at least a few weeks and see what happens. You can start with a short time, 5 minutes or less, and increase the time as needed and able. (Tip:I find using a timer helps rather than sneaking constant peeks at the clock.)

This Mindful Grounding Practice is a good one to have on hand for those times when you are at the end of your tether, overwhelmed or at a loss for what to do. By taking a moment to name three things you can see, smell, hear and feel (silently or out loud, the choice is yours) - and then purposefully breathing - you are grounding yourself in the here and now and can (hopefully!) find a more centred and balanced stance with which to proceed. It's a bit like a circuit breaker but without all the wiring. It can also be a fun practice to do with kids: anywhere, anytime, any place. 

This next one is a little different - but I can vouch for how satisfying it is. For anyone who has ever eaten - or drunk - something and not remembered a moment or taste of it, this is for you. My first coffee of the morning is now a lovely little ritual where I sit, appreciate and savour every drop all the way to the bottom of the cup. Take yourself off auto-pilot and give this practice a go with your next hot (or cold) drink - or even something to eat - and relish the pleasure that our sense of taste gives us when we slow things down.

Once you have made a start, find more moments in each day that you can make mindful: washing the dishes, driving to work, waiting for an appointment. And after that? Well, there are now so many books, apps, websites and blogs about mindfulness, a quick Google search will set you up to explore other ideas.

Want to know more?

I love www.mindful.org and www.smilingmind.com.au (which has an app also) because they have a ton of info and are absolutely free.