Mindfulness is one of those zeitgeisty health terms you may have seen bandied about in the media recently. But what exactly is it? How does it work? And why should you care? In answer to the first question, mindfulness is one of those things that is, at the same time, both exquisitely simple and extremely complex. In essence, being more mindful just means paying greater attention to the sensory, moment-by-moment experience of your life. If you eat a scrumptious sandwich, really taste it. If you follow a perfect puff of cloud as it drifts across a blue sky, really see it.
This may sound obvious - patronising, even - but think about it. How often do you wolf a sandwich while texting, reading the paper, listening to the radio... do you even taste the sandwich? Do you sometimes stare at the empty wrapper in your hand and wonder whether you actually just ate it? Or gazing up at that cloud - is your head full of chatter as you think about the thousand things you have to do that day, the argument you had last night with your wife, even the sandwich you will eat (without noticing) for lunch... do you even see the cloud?
We life in a go-faster world, where we rush from one distraction to the next, never quite experiencing any of our experiences. We are bombarded with information - from rolling TV news, the internet, smartphones, iPods, blaring city streets, screaming sirens, barking dogs - which is far too much for our brains to process. We are constantly frazzled, attention fragmented, concentration impossible, short-term memory shot - and no wonder.
So the 'informal practice' of mindfulness just means trying, as far as possible, to fully experience every second of our lives. Simple. And the 'formal practice' merely involves taking a few minutes every day (10 is fine, 20 better) to sit in silence, focusing our attention on our breath. Just that. Letting the 'monkey mind', as Buddhists call it, chatter away, without paying it too much attention. Also simple.
How does it work? Well, there is an increasing body of research proving that mindfulness has a major impact on our mental and physical health. Especially its two clinical applications: mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) which are extremely effective at tackling chronic pain, stress and anxiety; and depression, respectively. MBCT has been approved by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) to treat recurrent bouts of depression, so it's now recognised by the mainstream medical establishment.
And why should you care? As someone who practices mindfulness meditation daily, and teaches it to his clients, I can assure you that it can have a profoundly positive influence on your life. You will feel calmer and more at peace; be less buffeted by storms of negative emotion; feel less stressed, anxious and depressed; life will have greater meaning, pleasure and joy.
Perhaps a better question to ask yourself is, if this wonderful stuff is free, easy to learn and takes just minutes a day to work, why on earth wouldn't you try it?