What is Mindfulness?

Written by Tele Demetrious, Physiotherapist, BPhysio(Hons)
Reviewed by Brett Harrop, APA Sports Physiotherapist, BPhysio(Hons), MPhysio(Sports Physio)
Updated:

Health > Mindfulness > What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness - Sitting watching sunset

Mindfulness is a state of mind that is achieved by completely focusing your attention on the present moment.

When we are mindful, we are fully aware and engaged in whatever we are doing and wherever we are in each moment. This may entail moment to moment awareness of what is happening around you (i.e. what you can see, hear, smell, feel or taste) or within you (i.e. your thoughts or emotions).

Mindfulness entails living in the now. It involves an attitude of acceptance and friendliness to whatever the current moment presents (rather than the usual attitude of judgement, criticism and internal resistance to what is). 

Mindfulness can be profoundly life changing. It can markedly improve many key areas of your life, including virtually every experience you have. And, it can begin now!


Benefits of Mindfulness

Some of the key benefits of mindfulness, based on scientific research include:

  • Reduction in stress, depression and anxiety
  • Increased happiness, peace of mind and resilience
  • Improved concentration, memory and processing speed
  • Increased work, study and sporting performance
  • Increased productivity
  • Improved emotional intelligence and emotional regulation
  • Improved relationships
  • Enhanced sleep quality
  • Reduced blood pressure
  • Improved pain management
  • Enhanced capacity to deal with stress
  • Improved overall well-being (including some evidence that mindfulness can reduce inflammation, improve immunity and reduce biological aging)

Naturally Occurring Mindfulness

Mindfulness sometimes occurs spontaneously and without effort during everyday life. This is usually during ‘peak’ life experiences that we love and naturally give our complete attention to, such as:

  • Looking at a beautiful sunset, mountain or flower
  • Spending time immersed in, and appreciating, nature
  • Playing a sport that you love (particularly when you’re in the zone)
  • Participating in a favourite hobby or recreational activity
  • Playing with your child or grand child
  • Patting a puppy or other pet
  • Listening to the rain on your roof, or, your favourite music
  • Having a belly laugh with a friend or family member

All of these experiences have the potential to effortlessly absorb your attention, engross your senses and bring you into the present moment. This leaves you feeling fully alert, alive and at peace.

When your full attention is absorbed in the present moment, via direct sensory awareness, no further attention remains for thinking. This creates a gap in the usual stream of thought, freeing you from your mind.


How does Mindfulness feel?

Mindfulness is a deeply peaceful, connected and non-reactive state of consciousness. It entails an attitude of openness and acceptance of the present moment without judgement or reservation. 

When you are mindful, you feel completely alert, at peace and free of negativity. Life feels fresh, joyful and deeply satisfying (even if we are doing mundane things like opening a door, washing a dish, or taking a breath).

This joyful, peaceful, alive feeling is our natural inner state. That is, when our mind is not making excessive noise (i.e. lost in thought). Any problems that are kept alive by our thoughts, judgements or resistance to what is, also naturally dissolve.

When we enter a mindful state, it can feel like we are waking up – from the dream of thought or that we have ‘come to our senses’.  


What happens when we are not Mindful?

Research shows that when we are not mindful our mind automatically drifts into ‘Default Mode’. This is a state of mind primarily characterised by being ‘Lost in thought’.

Various sources report that 90 – 95% of these thoughts are repetitive (i.e. unoriginal) and around 60 – 80% of them are negative.

The thoughts we have in ‘Default Mode’ are often not relevant to the present moment. For example, we might be lying in bed in a quiet, peaceful, environment worrying about the future (e.g. a work situation, our finances, our health, a relationship issue) or perhaps dwelling on the past (e.g. replaying something that someone did to you and shouldn’t have done, something that happened that shouldn’t have happened, or something you did to someone else – that you regret). 

Our body then reacts to our thoughts, making us feel the corresponding emotion. If our thoughts are negative and primarily entail worry about the future we may feel emotions such as:

  • worry
  • stress
  • anxiety
  • fear
  • depression
  • panic (i.e. a panic attack)

If we’re replaying, or dwelling, on negative events from the past we may feel emotions such as:

  • anger
  • annoyance
  • sadness
  • regret
  • fear
  • resentment
  • depression

These emotions occur despite the fact that our thoughts have little or no relevance to what is actually happening in the present moment (e.g.  lying peacefully in bed).


‘Default Mode’ – Lost in Thought – Common Patterns

When we are lost in thought in ‘Default Mode’, our thinking is often unproductive, repetitive and harmful. These thoughts, when observed clearly, frequently serve no useful purpose beyond making you feel miserable and taking your attention away from life and the present moment (which is all there ever is).

During intentional observation, you may notice that ‘Default Mode’ thoughts often have no intent of changing your behaviour or helping you to take effective action. Some of these common thought patterns include:

  • Dwelling on the past
  • Worrying about the future
  • Non-acceptance of the present moment (and what has already unfolded)
  • Resistance to the present moment
  • Judging, complaining or criticising
  • Mind wandering
  • Mental chatter

Operating on Autopilot

During ‘Default Mode’ so much of our attention is lost in thought, that we often have minimal awareness of what is actually happening. As a result, we commonly do things on autopilot, with only enough attention to avoid bumping into things.

For example we might drive to work with no recollection of the journey, or, eat a meal without tasting a mouthful.  

Ultimately, ‘Default Mode’ makes us miss out on life (which is now and always now) and the present moment.


Brain activation patterns

Research shows that when we are in ‘Default Mode’ certain areas of the brain are activated. This includes the temporal and parietal lobes, the hippocampus (long term memory centre) and certain prefrontal areas. The amygdala (i.e. the brains ‘fear centre’) also becomes over activated. This activation pattern is increasingly being linked to mental health issues such as:

  • Anxiety
  • Stress
  • Depression
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
  • Autism
  • Schizophrenia

In contrast, intentionally paying attention to the present moment (i.e. mindfulness) activates different areas of the brain, primarily in the prefrontal cortex.

Mindfulness can be seen as the ‘antidote’ or opposite of ‘Default Mode’ and can help to prevent the harmful effects of ‘Default Mode’ at the causal level.

In Summary

  • Mindfulness = paying attention to the present moment
  • ‘Default Mode’ = Lost in thought (missing out on the present moment)

Learn more about Mindfulness

‘What is Mindfulness’ is the first article in our progressive mindfulness series, designed to introduce and deepen your understanding and practise of Mindfulness.

View the next article in our series: