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What, really, is mindfulness?


To understand what mindfulness is, sometimes it helps to start with an understanding what mindfulness isn’t. The opposite of mindfulness is what we term autopilot. Most of us have heard of autopilot – moving through our days functioning mechanically without being fully aware of what we are doing. An example might be driving home from work; not really there but there enough to drive safely and uneventfully, changing gears, checking your blind spot – actions that are so automatic you no longer have to think about them in order to do them. As this has become automatic, you can then plan your dinner and think about what you need to get from the shops. However, because of this automation, it also means you might drive past the post office when you’re meant to pick something up, or forget that you need fuel. Whilst autopilot is saving us resources in one area, it also means we are only partially aware of what is actually occurring in the moment.

Now imagine, you’re on your drive home from work, and before long you’re getting lost in thoughts about the day … what you did … what you didn’t do … starting to think about all things piling up at work needing your attention … starting to wonder why you have to do everything by yourself, that no-one ever helps … that your workplace is unsupportive and perhaps you would have been better off changing jobs when you had the chance … but now you’re stuck … Before you even realise, you’re feeling stressed, tense, and agitated. As soon as you walk in the door a member of your household asks how your day was and you snap, “it was fine”, and next thing you know you’re sitting on the couch scrolling through your phone or perhaps pouring a glass of wine to help relax. Does this sound familiar? Our thoughts can be so overpowering, particularly in times of stress that they can easily cloud our awareness of the present without us even noticing.

The antidote to autopilot is mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a pioneer of modern mindfulness practices, defines mindfulness as: “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally”. This three-pronged definition suggests the practice (i) is deliberate, (ii) is all about the here-and-now, and (iii) involves not judging our current experience as good, bad, right, or wrong. When we start to pay attention a little more to the way our own mind works we are likely to see that much of the time our mind is caught up in thinking … planning … day-dreaming … analysing … remembering … comparing … judging … ruminating about the past and imagining a future … anywhere but being in the present moment – this is the nature of the human mind and the endemic mind wandering we all experience.

Mindfulness is about paying attention, and when we start to pay attention to where our mind is from moment to moment throughout the day, chances are you will find a good chunk of time and energy caught up in memories, daydreaming and regrets. You might also notice that much of your energy goes into planning or worrying about the future. Due to this inner busyness there’s the possibility that you miss out on finer details of your experience. When we are functioning in this mode, we may eat without really tasting, see without really seeing, hear without really hearing, touch without really feeling, and talk without really knowing what we are saying. This is the nature of the human mind and the endemic mind wandering we all experience.

So, when we are in autopilot many of our decisions and actions are affected. By living in our heads and on autopilot, it keeps us out of touch with our own body, its signals, and its important messages. This highlights the importance of becoming more in touch with our body in a mindful way. Tuning into this you will be more aware of what your body telling you and better placed to respond appropriately and effectively – this is vital to improving your health and quality of life.

Stay tuned for our next blog post: Responding mindfully to stress – coming soon!


Dr. David H. Demmer
Director | Clinical Psychologist
Q Psychology