Mindfulness and How it Works

Peace

Mindfulness is the experience of being in the present moment where the mind is taking in information about the world and it’s subtle and obvious wonders, without judgement and with felt awareness.

To understand mindfulness better, it’s sometimes easier to contemplate it’s inverse: mind-wandering.


What is Mind-Wandering

Mind-wandering occurs when we become caught in thoughts or emotions of the past or future. It’s something we all do due of the way we are designed. Examples of mind-wandering you may be familiar with include:


  • When you’re doing one thing and thinking of another, for example when you’re driving and thinking about the day’s work
  • When you accidentally take the exit that takes you to work out of habit, forgetting that you intended to drive elsewhere
  • When you react impulsively in conversations due to past habit, perhaps due to being unheard in the past
  • When you withdraw from conversations for fear of being dismissed because that has happened in the past and the brain assumes that may likely repeat
  • When you daydream often about a fantasy for the future and dismiss present responsibilities to the point that it costs you
  • When you worry continuously about something and feel trapped in the world of thoughts, missing out on options that are not yet in your awareness.

Mind-wandering is something we all experience and there is a survival purpose to it, however, left unattended, it brings about distress. For example, when our emotional triggers from the past influence our reaction in the present.


Mind-Wandering

Why does Mind-Wandering happen?
Mother Nature designed our brain’s thought processing to be highly efficient. You can think of mind-wandering as part of the brain’s “housekeeping” function.


When we engage in an activity that does not require full attention (e.g. routine tasks), our brain places a small amount of attention on that task while all other resources navigate pending problems that need solving .


For example, you may be doing a routine task such as laundry, dishes, eating, driving, walking – and the brain places a small amount of resource on these tasks while delegating the rest to its autopilot (where memory helps you do the activity without much effort). This means there is remaining capacity in the brain that is now free and it automatically orients towards open problems that need solving. To the brain, habitual activities are housekeeping opportunities to direct its attention towards matters that are unresolved.


As a result, you find yourself  driving without much active effort and thinking about unresolved problems, or laying in bed without active attention and trapped in circling thoughts.

Mind-wandering serves its purpose, but left unattended, crosses into unknown territories and continues on that path until we pause and switch into the driver’s seat through Mindfulness.


The Return from Mind-Wandering
Mindfulness is the return to becoming aware, which happens when mind-wandering dissolves, even if for a moment. We all would have had incidental experiences of this. It may be when we feel mesmerised by nature and feel fully present for a moment, thrilled by adrenaline, or involved in an engaging conversation where our attention is at its fullest. These are examples of incidental moments of awareness. Mindfulness is the practice of making these experiences more intentional and frequent. In doing so we begin growing the ability to become more present as and when we choose to.


It is important to note that mindfulness is a practice, i.e. it requires daily repetition. You can think of it as muscle exercise for the brain – just as physical strength builds with repetitive practice, similarly mental muscles build with daily practice.