Few things puzzle me more than humankind's talent for making things complicated which should be simple. So it is with mindfulness. If you have young children, it is likely that you are observing masters of mindfulness at play on a daily basis. Strange then, that something children are able to achieve without conscious effort should require so many pages to be written, so many courses to run, and so many fortunes to be made.
So, let me simplify mindfulness for you with a definition. Mindfulness is a focus on the present moment. That's it. Whenever we feel anxious about the future, or let concerns about past mistakes cloud our mind, we are not being mindful of the present. Ask someone who drove, or was driven, to an important meeting, for example, to recount their journey to the meeting. Beyond telling you the route they took, they will probably be unable to tell you any more details. Why? Well, the likelihood is they were too focused on the upcoming meeting. It would be nice to think they were focused on their driving, on where they were going, but it is likely that some of their focus was diverted to other matters.
In his book, The Miracle of Mindfulness, Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh uses the example of washing the dishes. Are we washing the dishes to have clean dishes, he asks, or washing the dishes to wash the dishes? Paul Wilson, in Instant Calm, refers to this as "the total effort". The basic idea is a total focus on what we are doing in any given moment. This principle, in both cases, is explained within a few pages, surrounded by numerous other pages which contain useful exercises.
Modern life teaches us bad habits. In our work, in our lives away from work, we seem to have so little time that we are tempted to attempt multitasking. As a result, our focus is pulled in different directions. Ideally, we need to prioritise and give our focus to one thing at a time. Few of us have this choice, so the exercises in those guides to mindfulness become necessary. We should set aside some time each day, the guides say, to sit quietly, focus on where we are, what is happening right now, and concentrate on our breath as a method of grounding us in the present. They sell this to us as "mindfulness meditation". Wrong. It is simply meditation, and it has retained the same basic form for thousands of years. Mindfulness is not the process of meditation; it is the result.
I've heard it said that, as we age, time seems to pass more quickly. "Where did the time go?", I have heard people ask. It should be clear, from what I have said here, that life continues to pile distraction upon distraction on us, so it is increasingly difficult to be mindful, to be completely in the present moment. Once these moments are gone, they are gone forever. If we are not mindful of their passing, they are lost to us.
You may have heard yoga, tai chi, chi kung and similar disciplines referred to as "moving meditation". If done correctly, it is an accurate description. A focus on these movements is more effective, for some, than a simple seated meditation. The day's problems, and concerns about the future, fade away as we are absorbed in having correct posture, performing movements correctly and being aware of how our bodies respond.
If you are eating, actually taste your food. Savour every bite, rather than greedily shovelling it into your mouth and swallowing, barely registering its presence. Notice your surroundings. If you are taking a walk, take time to think about how the sun, rain, wind or snow feels on your skin. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? What do you feel?
This present moment is all you have right now. Make the most of it.