What is Mindfulness? And What it is Not

Mindfulness is a tool that has become exceedingly popular recently. Only a few years ago the general public would not be familiar with the term, whereas today it’s something we hear about all the time in a range of different contexts.

In some ways this is a good thing: mindfulness is a great tool to be aware of and it can be used to greatly improve your concentration, awareness and happiness. But at the same time, it’s also a bad thing: because it has been misappropriated in many instances and many people don’t actually really understand what it means anymore.

With that in mind, let’s take an in-depth look at what mindfulness is and what it isn’t – and how you can start using it to improve your life.

The Basics

Mindfulness is often used to describe a type of meditation. Specifically, ‘mindfulness meditation’ is a type of meditation that involves reflecting on the contents of your own mind and how they might be affecting you. Whereas the point of some forms of meditation – such as transcendental meditation – is to completely ‘empty’ your mind, the point of mindfulness is instead to simply detach yourself from your thoughts and become an observer. This way, you can prevent them from affecting you in the same way and you can also gain a greater understanding of the contents of your own thoughts.

Often this is described as ‘watching the thoughts go past like clouds’. The idea is not to engage with them or let them affect you but simply to observe them and to later reflect on how they might impact on your happiness.

Other Uses

By doing this, mindfulness allows us to take some time out of our stressful day to remove ourselves from our thoughts and thereby get some rest and relaxation.

But it’s not really just about meditation. What mindfulness also means is being constantly aware of your own thoughts as you go throughout your day. Some people will tell you to be ‘mindful’ of your body or ‘mindful’ of your environment. But really what you should be focussing on is just what you’re mindful of.

Next time you go out for a nice walk with family, or next time you do something else that you should be enjoying, just make a note of whether you’re really focussed on what you’re doing and whether you’re actively engaging in it… or is your mind elsewhere? Are you actually worrying about work? Or stressing about other things?

Mindfulness teaches us to be more aware of our thoughts as that way, we can decide that we’re not going to let them affect us and because that way we can then make the conscious effort to refocus and to decide to be happy.

Mindfulness is not mysticism or linked to religion and it’s not a cure-all therapeutic technique. All this is a tool and better yet, a state of mind. With practice, you can learn to be more in-tune with your own thoughts and that can change everything.

A Quick Primer on Neurotransmitters

Using mindfulness and CBT, it’s possible for us to change the way we react to stressful events and to essentially reprogram our stress response. Likewise, we can use this to improve our happiness, to get to sleep more easily and much more.

But when we do all this, what we’re really doing is affecting the chemistry of our brains. We’re changing the neurochemicals in our brain and that, in turn, is changing the way we feel and even the way we perform. This is why it can be a good idea to learn more about what neurotransmitters really are and how they work. Once you do that, you’ll have more idea of what it is you’re actually doing to change your brain functions and in turn, this will make you more effective at it.

What Are Neurotransmitters?

Your brain is made up of a large network of different cells called neurons. This network is sometimes called your ‘connectome’ and essentially, each of these cells represents a thought, an idea, a memory or a sensation.

As we think or experience the world around us, these cells ‘fire’ by releasing an electrical signal like a circuit. That signal travels over the synapses – the gaps between brain cells – and this then allows them to create the rich experiences that we’re familiar with in a kind of cascade.

In terms of the way that a cell fires, it can either be ‘on or off’. That is to say that there aren’t ‘levels’ of firing. After a certain amount of excitation, a cell fires and then stops firing.

But that’s not to say that the signal is entirely binary. Because at the same time, the brain also releases chemicals called neurotransmitters which colour various aspects of the signal. This can alter how likely it is for the cell to fire again, it can strengthen the connection between two cells, or it makes us feel happy or sad about that thing.

Your Brain Chemistry

Your brain is filled with neurotransmitters which affect receptors on brain cells and have a short lifespan. At the same time, hormones like testosterone and cortisol can also affect the brain in a similar way acting like secondary neurotransmitters.

These hormones and neurotransmitters are moderated partly by our thoughts. If we change which cells fire, we change which hormones and neurotransmitters get released.

But it’s much more complex than this. For starters, our hormones and neurotransmitters are tied closely to our lifestyles and various biological factors. When we’re hungry for instance, low blood sugar encourages the release of cortisol – the stress hormone. This, in turn, encourages the release of ghrelin, the hunger hormone.

When we have high blood sugar, though we release insulin and this increases the tryptophan in the brain. That tryptophan is converted to serotonin, making us feel good, and this is later converted into melatonin – the sleep hormone.

In short, our physical health is directly linked to our mental state and vice versa, putting us firmly at the mercy of our biology. But that said, using mindfulness, it is possible to regain control over this situation and to decide exactly how we want to feel and when.

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