As Positive Psychology research has grown, so has the interest in mindfulness. This ancient practice of the contemplative traditions has much to teach us about the art of paying focussed attention and living in the moment.
An upswell of interest in mindfulness is happening around the globe. From the Mindful Leadership Global Forum held in Sydney to recent features in the New York Times, Huffington Post and Australian Financial Review, more and more people want to learn how to apply this ancient practice to cut through the noise of our busy lives, quiet the mind and focus on what really matters.
The science of mindful attention
Buddhists and other wisdom traditions have been practicing mindfulness for 2500 years. Science now recognises the enormous positive effects it can have on our mental and physical health, relationships, decision making and learning.
Neuroscientists such as Dr Richard Davidson of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, have been investigating the link between meditation and mindfulness programs on the emotional and mental states of novice and expert meditators. Davidson and his colleagues found that expert mediators can dial up or dial down their levels of compassion, showing that life-long practice brings an extraordinary ability to control our mind and our human potential.
The benefits of paying attention to what’s happening around us, instead of operating on auto-pilot, is a focus of Ellen Langer, one of the key researchers in the field. In experiments that have inspired much research in positive psychology, she found that elderly men could dramatically improve their health by simply acting as if it were 20 years earlier. According to Langer, whose books include Mindfulness, Counterclockwise and The Power of Mindful Learning, the magic lies in becoming aware of the ways we mindlessly react to cultural cues or habitual ways of thinking.
Mindfulness is far more than the province of meditators or those seeking to improve their health and wellbeing. Langer links mindfulness to higher levels of creativity and performance. A mindful approach is critical in today’s complex workplaces, she believes.
In a recent blog for the Harvard Business Review, Langer asserts that the key responsibility of business leaders is practicing mindful leadership and instilling this attitude and skill in others.
Mindfulness also reduces our temptation to multitask at work, according to Jaqueline Carter, a senior trainer at the Potential Project who teaches mindfulness at companies such as Google. She believes a mindful attitude and skills are essential for managing demanding work environments and tasks. In a Huffington Post article, she explains how being more mindful reduces our stress levels and potential for error and increases our productivity and engagement.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness involves single pointedly resting our awareness in one place for an extended period without being distracted.
Langer defines mindfulness as “the process of actively noticing new things.” She notes that “when you do that, it puts you in the present. It makes you more sensitive to context and perspective. It’s the essence of engagement. And it’s energy-begetting, not energy-consuming.”
When we approach the world with mindful awareness we can more accurately assess and respond to situations and people. By noticing and separating ourselves from old beliefs and anxieties we also become more accepting of ourselves and other people. Mindfulness is the opposite of mindlessness, believes Langer. It helps us develop empathy, compassion and care for the world around us.
A mindful state has three qualities, according to Mel Neil, an expert in mindfulness and senior trainer on our Diploma of Positive Psychology and Wellbeing.
- Relaxation – settling the body in its natural state
- Stillness – avoiding movement to quiet the mind
- Vigilance – careful, focused attention on the mind itself moment by moment
“Normally our attention wanders, oscillating between excitation and dullness,” she explains. “Only when we attempt for the first time to direct and hold our attention in a single place for even a few moments do we become vividly aware of just how chaotic our minds really are. Mindfulness is the ability to rest our awareness without it falling under the influence of either excitation or dullness.”
Practicing mindfulness in daily life
It is possible to train the mind to become more still and focused. It’s a skill that takes time to learn and discipline to practice, yet it does not take long to make significant progress and the benefits are immediate. While there are many mindfulness practices we can learn and master, such as yoga and meditation, its not that hard to include mindfulness in our own day-to-day, routine-filled lifestyles. We just need to notice what’s going on and savour our experiences with attention and awareness.
Living in the here and now, savouring ever day “keeps us focused on what is truly happening both around us and in our body,” says Fiona Werle-Schupp, a student on our Diploma of Positive Psychology and Wellbeing. She recently shared her experience of learning to live more mindfully in a blog at the Huffington Post.
Savouring is about taking a positive moment in time and mentally stretching it out so it lasts a little bit longer. It uses focussed attention to intensify the experience. Use savouring to reminisce about the past, focus mindfully on the present moment, or anticipate the future. Tune into the experience by noticing what each of your senses tell you. Or take a mental snapshot as success happens so you can recall it in vivid detail.
We teach a range of mindfulness activities in our Diploma of Positive Psychology and Wellbeing. These include savouring exercises to practice mindful attention and build a memory of positive experiences, along with a range of meditations that are easy to learn and start integrating into daily life at home or work.