Mindfulness is the practice whereby the person is intentionally aware of their thoughts and actions in the present moment, non-judgmentally. It is applied to both bodily actions and the mind's own thoughts and feelings.
Realistically, mindfulness skills might be considered essential for happiness and success in this ever more complex and demanding world. It supports the emotional intelligence needed for personal effectiveness and successful relationships, and contributes to lower levels of stress-related illness and to restful sleep.
There are many forms of mindfulness and meditation. One example of mindfulness is to mentally give a verbal label to each in-breath and out-breath during sitting meditation. So, each time you breathe in, you think, for example, 'rising', and each time you breathe out, you think 'falling'. In this type of meditation, the breath serves as a tether to bring awareness back to the present moment.
By being in the present moment more frequently, mindfulness practitioners begin to see the inner and outer aspects of reality. Inner reality may unfold as one sees the mind continually chattering with commentary or judgment. By noticing that the mind is continually making commentary, you can carefully notice those thoughts and decide if they have value. Most often, mindful people realise that 'thoughts are just thoughts' - the thoughts themselves have no weight. People are free to release a thought ('let it go') when they realise that the thought is not concrete reality. As such, they are free to observe life without getting caught in the commentary.
As you more closely observe inner reality, you find that happiness is not a quality brought about by a change in outer circumstances, but by realising that happiness starts with releasing attachment to thoughts. This allows you to release 'automatic' reactions to pleasant and unpleasant situations or feelings.
However, mindfulness does not have to be constrained to a formal meditation session, because:
It can be done at any time
It does not require sitting, or even focusing on the breath, but rather is done by bringing the mind to focus on what is happening in the present moment, while simply noticing the mind's usual 'commentary'
You can be mindful of the sensations in your feet while walking, of the sound of the wind in the trees, or the feeling of soapy water while doing dishes.
You can also be mindful of the mind's commentary: 'I wish I didn't have to walk any further', 'I like the sound of the leaves rustling' or 'I wish washing dishes wasn't so boring and the soap wasn't drying out my skin'. When you notice the mind's running commentary, you have the freedom to release those judgments. In this example, you may see that washing dishes does not have to be judged 'boring'; it is only a process of coordinating dishes with soap and water. Any activity done mindfully is a form of meditation, as watching the mind can be done during any time.
In addition to various forms of meditation, mindfulness training exercises develop awareness throughout the day using designated environmental cues. Individuals are encouraged to select cues that become triggers for awareness of the present moment, essentially making mindfulness a habit. Those who find it difficult to practice sitting meditation may consider trying a mindfulness training approach that focuses on establishing the habit of mindfulness through daily cues.
Mindfulness skills and the awareness that comes from this practice form an important part of the approaches that we find most useful in our clinic. These approaches promote mindfulness as a skill and eventually a habit, and utilise mindfulness to help reveal the ways of thinking and acting that interfere with peace of mind and happiness.
Largely associated with Buddhism, the practice of mindfulness is also advocated by such people as medical researcher and author Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn who developed the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, a form of complementary medicine offered in over 200 US hospitals and currently the focus of a number of research studies funded by The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
You may be interested to read more about mindfulness. Good resources include:
The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle - this is very easy to read and a good place to start as it is so inspirational
The Miracle of Mindfulness, by the Vietnamese Buddhist Monk Thich Nhat Hanh - a simple manual on mindfulness meditation
Mindfulness in Plain English, by Ven Henepola Gunaratana - it lives up to its title
Wherever You Go, There You Are - Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life, by Jon Kabat-Zin - a great remedy for when you get stuck in the kind of thinking that believes happiness is to be found somewhere other than where we are right now
The Quiet, by Australian 'Guru of Calm' Paul Wilson - this is a fail-safe way to start meditating if you have tried before and found it too hard, or if you want to resume meditation practice.