Skip to content

What Is Mindfulness?

I’m often asked the question ‘what is mindfulness?’.  I don’t believe there is one definitive answer to this question.  What you’ll find here is just one possible answer, based on the way I have received and share the practices of mindfulness and self-kindness…

Mindfulness means being with our experience in a gentle, accepting way.  When stressed, we have a tendency to be stuck in our heads, thinking and problem-solving.  With mindful awareness, we learn to inhabit our direct, sensory experience in the body, and this gives us more choice in how we respond to difficulty.  Through learning to be with all of our experience – even the difficult parts – we build emotional confidence.  I share mindfulness with a strong emphasis on kindness and compassion (including self-kindness, which is extremely powerful in helping us cope with difficulty).

What are the benefits?

Research shows that mindfulness reduces stress and improves wellbeing.  I can personally say that it has helped me feel much more calm and positive in the face of many life challenges. Mindfulness isn’t a quick fix, but it does have profound & lasting benefits when you make it a habit.  

So how does it work?

Mindfulness is practised by engaging in regular meditation.  But it may not be what you associate with the word ‘meditation’.  There are sitting practices that can be done while being guided.  These include focusing on the body, the breath or feelings of kindness.  There are also ways to bring mindful awareness to whatever we’re doing, and this all counts as meditation.  Over time, meditating regularly starts to have a positive impact on how we are generally.  It’s a bit like training to get fit: when practised regularly, it has a cumulative effect, re-wiring the brain to create new neural pathways.  Although practising meditation will greatly enhance the benefits, it is possible to start becoming more mindful of your habitual responses by using mindful awareness tools in daily life.

What’s the best way to learn?

Most people find that some guidance is helpful initially via a class or course of some kind.  This can be especially helpful if you think you’re ‘no good at meditating’.   Being able to access regular sessions helps with motivation to keep your own practice going (read more about that here).  It can also be useful to connect with other people who are learning. You can get CD’s or downloads with guided meditations to listen to at home.  My recordings can be found on the Meditations and Mini-Meditations pages of this blog. 

If you’re not quite ready for regular meditation, but you want to develop a more mindful response to worry, stress and overwhelm – you can still learn to live more mindfully in everyday life.  I share tips on how to do this in my classes, in my book and via my monthly mailing list – you can sign up for free emails on the Home page of my resources website.  Although it’s true that sitting meditation enhances the benefits of mindfulness, you can also develop your own set of tools that can be used whether you meditate or not.

Are all classes the same?

There are different types of courses and classes.  My approach is helpful for stress, but is not intended to provide support for debilitating mental health issues.  If you have been diagnosed with (or suspect you may have) a mental health condition such as depression or an anxiety disorder, you can ask your GP about a referral to a Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy course (MBCT) – this is different from the classes I offer.  To learn more about this, click here for the more info.  You can also find out more at the Mental Health Foundation website called Be Mindful 

Making Friends With My Anxiety

As a wellbeing coach and mindfulness teacher, I don’t just share from the theory of mindfulness, but from my own experience too.  Here’s my own story about how mindfulness and self-kindness transformed my relationship with anxiety – from outright war, to acceptance and befriending. This process unfolded for me some years ago, and I’ve included excerpts from the personal journal (in italics) that I was writing at the time.  I hope this gives you an idea of mindful learning in action.  The freedom and relief I discovered during this period of my life were in fact what motivated me to train as a mindfulness teacher.

For many years I’d struggled with anxiety, and when I experienced recurrent miscarriages, it seemed to intensify those feelings.  When our son was 18 months old, we suffered particularly devastating loss, which seemed to ratchet up my anxiety to new levels.  I was terrified of losing my son aswell, and I felt surrounded by threats to his safety.  I came to a point where I was hardly sleeping because I was getting up so often to check on him. Routine tasks were taking me a long time:  I would become paralysed, trapped in extra measures designed to eliminate any imagined risk.  I also began to worry that my son would pick up on my anxiety and feel the world wasn’t a safe place.

One day, I had what I call a ‘What if?’ moment.  Faced with an everyday situation,  I stood paralysed, calculating how I could eliminate any risk  (bear with me if you’ve never suffered anxiety – I know that may not sound logical). And I suddenly wondered – ‘What would it be like to be free of all this, to just do these everyday tasks without a second thought?  What would a life that be like?’  This moment planted a seed of possibility.  Mindfulness had already helped me to cope with a level of sadness that I’d never have thought I could withstand.  So I wondered if I could also turn to my mindfulness practice to help with the anxiety I was experiencing.

Being a coach, I knew I’d have to build my confidence up slowly.  I decided to take small opportunities in daily life to challenge my usual responses.  That instead of always taking action to eliminate tiny or non-existent risks, I would practice noticing that and delaying my reaction.  I identified typical situations that I wanted to handle differently, and I used a journal to record my experiences both during meditations and in life.  My dream outcome was that “I would be a confident and relaxed parent. I would be able to do practical tasks with less effort, leaving me with more energy for having fun as a family. “

Soon, my awareness of what was happening in anxiety-provoking situations was increasing.  I found that during challenging situations, I was able to pause, and create just the tiniest bit of space before reacting.  And in that space, sometimes I could find a new way of seeing things, or the courage to do nothing, and wait for the clouds of panic to clear.

I was making room for a more balanced response. Here’s what I wrote just after one such situation.  “I was able to see that it was my anxiety I needed to tolerate, not an actual risk. Maybe this is what learning to trust feels like.” Mindfulness gives us more choice about how we respond to difficulty.  In my case I began making a choice between avoidant behaviours (which protected me from feeling anxiety), and ‘letting things go’ which exposed me to difficult feelings, but which I often felt was healthier all round for my son.  The fact that my ‘anxiety’ behaviours became a choice – rather than an unquestioned necessity – felt extremely liberating in itself.

I began relying on mindfulness to help me ‘ride out’ the intense waves of anxiety.  I would bring my attention to my breathing and try to just stay in the present moment rather than going into an imaginary and catastrophic future. Then, I noticed  “it’s like I can actually feel it start to subside physically.  Like it’s the physical ‘fight or flight’ response that’s been triggered, and that’s what changes and subsides. “  All this time, I’d felt like the key to reducing anxiety was to control external events, and now I was learning that I didn’t need to exhaust myself doing that!

Self-kindness also became crucial to letting my anxious feelings pass without getting trapped in avoidant behaviours.  At the time I reflected that “When I tolerate the anxiety, it’s like letting that part of me have a voice, listening to it and validating it. Once it’s been heard, it doesn’t need to shout at me any more.  And that’s the moment that the feeling of anxiety starts to subside.  It’s when I don’t want to listen, and get locked in a battle to shut out or disprove that voice, that I get stuck in anxiety and feel trapped and suffocated.”

This was the first time I began to understand what is meant by ‘befriending’ difficult feelings: “It was as if I had to first accept myself – all the parts of myself, including the anxious, the perfectionist and the vulnerable parts – and give them compassion just as they are, instead of believing that I only deserve compassion when I’ve calmed down/have fixed things/am feeling good about myself.”  

The impact of self-kindness is evident in my journey, as I noticed that “All the time I’m getting braver at tolerating my anxious thoughts and impulses without always acting on them, and more compassionate with myself when I do act on them”.  I found that the anxious part of me was only one part of me – and another voice would kick in saying ‘you can do this, you can cope’.  And I started to believe it.

Following these realisations, I noted in my journal that “I’m not putting off unpleasant tasks.  I’m accepting that I find them unpleasant, noticing the anxiety but doing things more efficiently – as I lose less time fighting with myself and just get on with it.  At the same time I’m being aware of my feelings, and encouraging myself compassionately for doing them even though I find them difficult.”  So tasks that had once seemed ‘too much’ had now become perceived as merely ‘unpleasant’.

Over time, my perspective became that  “I just feel much less ‘at war’ with myself in general in terms of my anxiety levels – like I’m struggling with myself much less, like I have space to breathe.  It just feels like less of an issue than it has been – like my anxiety isn’t interfering with living so much.”

I discovered that with a foundation of self-kindness in place, I was finally able to apply mindfulness skills to transform my relationship with anxiety.  I don’t tend to describe this journey as ‘overcoming’ anxiety, as I don’t see it like that anymore: I’ve released myself from that struggle with it.  Now, when feelings of anxiety arise, I can embrace them as a part of my overall emotional landscape, and recognise they are just one of the full range of emotions that we human beings naturally experience.  I no longer feel trapped by these feelings, nor do they prevent me from living fully.  To me, this is the true freedom we can find in the practices of self-kindness and mindfulness.

Note – it may not be advisable to learn mindfulness for the first time if you are currently experiencing debilitating anxiety, and you may need therapeutic support from a health professional.

Has Mindfulness Become Yet Another Marker Of ‘Success’?

I’ve become a little wary of blogging about mindfulness recently; I fear I’m at risk of becoming something of a cliche, if I write another piece about how great mindfulness is, and how everyone should practice it.

Because it’s everywhere right now, isn’t it? And I do worry that it could be turning into yet another thing that people feel they have to achieve.

But life for most of us is hard enough without that burden.

I’m beginning to prefer to use the word ‘awareness’ – it doesn’t seem to carry the weight of expectation, there’s more room for not getting anything right.

We can grow awareness very very slowly, and we can become more aware without even having to change anything. The habits we’d like to change are often so deeply entrenched because the idea of doing anything different is, quite frankly, terrifying.

If what we’re shooting for is simply awareness, we really don’t have to change the habit until we’re ready: just bringing compassionate awareness to those times we catch ourselves in the act is enough. It’s more than enough. It kickstarts the process of real change.

Because with awareness, we start to truly understand our habits. We begin to see what it is that we’re avoiding (or seeking) through particular behaviour. This can show up in the things we actually do, but also in our mental and emotional patterns and habits. I speak here from personal experience – many of my own habits are attempts to escape uncomfortable feelings like uncertainty, confusion, insecurity or fear (to name just a few).

Once we have this kind of insight into our own patterns, a positive change can begin to unfold naturally. And that will likely not be a neat and tidy movement towards ‘success’. A gradual growth as a human being may occur that is meandering, back-sliding, acceptance-requiring – and quite astonishing.

What’s more, there is no particular end-point that we need to reach. In my own practice of ten years, the more awareness I’ve developed, the further away I’ve moved from needing to evaluate my own success, at anything – including meditation.

I hope that as mindfulness becomes more embedded into our culture, we can embrace it as a simple invitation towards greater awareness, as we tread this tricky and amazing path of being human.

If you liked this piece, you can find out how to explore my approach further here

How Mindfulness Soothes ‘Red Alert’

When I first learned about the 3 emotion systems, I wished I’d know about it earlier.   Having experienced several years of high stress and anxiety, I could see how this knowledge might have helped me navigate such a difficult period.  Here’s a brief introduction to what these systems are, and why they are key to balancing stress.

In his book The Compassionate Mind, psychologist Paul Gilbert outlines these systems, which I’ll describe here as:

Threat zone

Striving zone

Contentment zone

When something makes us feel threatened,  typical feelings are fear/anxiety,  or defensive feelings like anger and resentment.  The stress hormone cortisol is very much associated with this system.  In the striving zone, we’re focussed on trying to achieve things.  When we get what we want, it feels good.  But constant striving is exhausting and can lead to burnout.  The contentment zone is the one we were designed to return to when the tiger that was lurking has gone away.  This is when we feel calm and at peace, and we’re just Being, not trying to achieve anything.  Affiliation is also an important aspect of this system: connecting with others helps us to feel safe and soothed.   We need a bit of each of these systems to function well and stay alive, but often they become out of balance.

So, taking an overview of these three zones – where do you spend the most time currently?  When I looked back on my infertility struggles, I could see clearly that I constantly bounced between Threat and Striving.  Even worse, I had no control over what I wanted to achieve, which amplified the negative effects of both those zones.  During that time, it was safe to say that I pretty much NEVER spent any time in the Contentment zone.  I hardly even knew that such a state existed.  All I felt was scared, frustrated and isolated.

The good news is that even when we’re experiencing stress, there are ways to bring ourselves into the Contentment zone a bit more.  And spending more time there can rebalance the depleting effects of the other two zones.  Practising meditation regularly is one way to do this.  This is partly because it moves us away from the Doing mode that is associated with striving, and into the Being mode which is more characteristic of contentment.  When we practice mindfulness meditation, we’re not trying to achieve anything or get anywhere.   We’re just Being With our experience.   Practised over time, regular meditation can also help us ‘dial down’ the threat system, so that we feel more calm generally.

The other aspect of mindfulness that helps us plug into the contentment system is connecting with others.  When we engage in Connection meditations, we can reduce feelings of isolation by focussing on our shared humanity:  just like us, everyone wants to be happy, and wants to avoid suffering.  Taking it further, mindfulness often offers an environment that enables us to connect with others in a very human way.  Over time, I’ve come into contact with lots of people who’ve turned to mindfulness to help with their own suffering.  Even during difficult times, it has helped me to feel part of that human community, among others who also suffer but for different reasons.

If you want to read more about the emotion systems, I would highly recommend the book Mindful Compassion by Paul Gilbert and Choden.

My Top 10 Mindful Reading List

I often recommend some of these books to people – and I’ve found them all so helpful personally. Some are on mindfulness, others on self-compassion – but they all have something valuable to say about being human.

If you’re looking for some inspiration for your reading list, you might like to try some of these.

1. Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff – a fantastic intro to self-kindness, & how it can replace poor self-esteem.

2. Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hanson – great for boosting positivity.

3. Mindfulness: Finding Peace In A Frantic World by Mark Williams & Danny Penman – I recommend this as an intro to mindfulness for those who are curious but haven’t yet tried it.

4. The Compassionate Mind by Paul Gilbert – fascinating explanation of our emotion systems and why we find life difficult.

5. Calming Your Anxious Mind by Jeffrey Brantley – a good book to progress to once you’ve already started practising mindfulness.

6. The Mindful Path To Self-Compassion by Christopher Germer – again, I’d say best read once you’ve already started practising self-compassion meditations.

7. The Mindfulness Solution by Ronald D Siegel – I found the sections about learning how to be with difficulty especially helpful, after I’d attended a mindfulness course.

8. Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn – I read this once I had a fairly established practice as a way of developing further.

9. Breath By Breath by Larry Rosenberg – A good book for people who already meditate regularly and want to go deeper.

10. Get Out Of Your Mind & Into Your Life by Steven C Hayes – practical exercises that help build discomfort tolerance, based on the ACT approach. The chapters on Values are great if you want to make some changes in your life. I’d suggest learning a bit about self-kindness before doing the other exercises.

If you’ve read any of these, what did you think?

Which books would be on your Top 10?

(At some point I might do a ‘part 2’ to this post – there are definitely more I could add since I first wrote it!)