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What exactly does it mean to be mindful?

By Jane Close IN Discover

“Mindfulness is like a mother holding her baby in her arms and caring for her baby’s pain. When our pain is held by mindfulness it loses some of its strength…”  – Thich Nhat Hanh

These words go to the heart of what it means to be mindful. Just as a crying child needs not a problem solver in his mother, but a listener, an observer, a pair of open, loving arms – so do our thoughts, emotions, and experiences.

Not invested attention, not like when a new mother gets frantic at the sight of her baby crying, wishing it would stop. Pure, undivided attention – the automatic response of a more experienced mother.

We all know those moments, when a child has fallen over and hurt themselves, and the sheer sight of their mum holding out her arms quickly turns a sob into a bellow. It is as though her presence has brought out the raw emotion, allowing it to then subside. It is quite natural to be mindful when certain mothering moments demand it of us. But day-to-day, it can be a difficult habit to practice.

Many of us in this age of consumerism, mums included no doubt, struggle to give things, people, tastes, sounds – the list goes on – our full, unflinching attention. Let alone sit in meditation to hone the skill!

This is because we have minds that are often buzzing with distracting content; cravings, emotions, thoughts, noise, news stories, to-do lists, thoughts about the past and the future – attempts to control and make sense of our feelings and everything that happens to us. In times when our minds become full like this, it helps to get in touch with what it really means to be mindful.

The word “mindfulness” is a translation of the word “sati”, which means to remember, in Pali – the ancient language of Buddhism.

In Buddhism, out of which the West’s conception of mindfulness has largely developed, mindfulness means to focus on one thing with your full attention. As the attention drifts, which it naturally does, you remember to keep bringing it back to that one thing.

This skill is practiced in order to cultivate awareness and compassion. It is a means to an end, and not the end in itself.

By giving one’s full attention to good, bad and neutral experiences, without reacting, the mindful person can create space for a sense of calm and balance amid chaos. They do not cling to individual emotions, sensations and thoughts, but embrace them gently, as part of a full picture that is forever animated and changing. They maintain the observant mood we are born with.

One only needs to glance at the way a baby engages with people and things to recall their own inclination to learn from, witness, and experience the world, and themselves in a state of wonder and acceptance. 

Sure, as we get older, there is a need to process and judge what is happening to us, but the scales can tip too far towards judgemental-ness, and trying to control our circumstances and nut-out our personal narrative – rather than letting things unfold. Our mind, which can be so expansive, seems to enclose us, blocking out our view of the clear skies.

It can feel almost unbearably cramped up there, when we get so consumed by our busy schedules, preoccupations and thoughts, that we sometimes even forget to breathe properly! Gradually we can make it a habit to catch ourselves in these moments, and return to a simple mindfulness practice, such as sitting up straight and taking three deep breaths.

A simple practice like this can help us prevent the mind’s distractions from spiralling out of control, thus enabling us to be more engaged with our world, and our loves ones. Better still, regular meditation practice, in which the skill of mindfulness is honed, can lead to deeper awareness and compassion. 

The best way to understand what mindfulness is, is to start actively practicing it in your daily life and feel its effects. You can also check out some of our maven’s classes to get you started :)

Jane Close

Jane Close is a writer by nature. Forever seeking the deeper meaning and the truer tale. In her 20s, Jane’s passion for true stories and people from different backgrounds drew her into the world of journalism, where she churned out articles on topics from the arts to politics for Fairfax community papers in Melbourne.

A thirst for adventure then took Jane to Japan, where she spent four years chasing and telling the powerful story of Okinawa and Okinawan people (among other topics!). Now 33, and mother of two, Jane works as a copywriter, helping organisations and businesses tell their truest, most meaningful stories.

Jane has always had an insatiable interest in spirituality, which she has explored through reading, travelling, asking lots of questions, and going on a Vipassana meditation retreat while pregnant with her now 3 year old son. Since becoming a mother, Jane has learned (sometimes the hard way) just how important it is to practice self-care through mindfulness exercises such as yoga and meditation.

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