What is mindfulness?

Award-winning journalist and bestselling author, Dr Danny Penman, is one of the world's leading mindfulness experts. Here, he explains what mindfulness is and why it could dramatically enhance your life

My expertise lies in the mind and mindfulness, but physical exercise, nutrition and recovery are all vitally important when it comes to your overall health and happiness. Some of us get so focused on one thing, like improving our diet or becoming physically fit, that we forget about all the other pillars of the human experience that people have known are so important for centuries, millennia even. Our mindsets underpin everything we do, so they should only be ignored at our peril.

Mindfulness is simply having full conscious awareness of whatever’s going on around you in the present moment: the thoughts flowing through your mind; the emotions you're experiencing; the physical sensations you’re feeling. It's a way of paying attention to and being fully aware of the present moment, but most importantly, doing so without judgement. Traditionally, that state of mind was cultivated using various types of meditation.

So, what’s the difference between mindfulness and meditation? The simple answer is that meditation is a tool you can use to help cultivate mindfulness. The longer answer is that there are quite a few different types of meditation and mindfulness is one of them. 

You don't need to meditate to cultivate mindfulness. Meditating is just a relatively straightforward way of doing it. For example, you can cultivate mindfulness by going for a walk and paying full conscious attention to whatever is going on around you - the sights, the sounds, the smells - and trying to remain in the present moment without judging it and without thinking about the past or focusing on the future.

You cannot fail at meditation. When you first try meditating you’ll probably question if you’re doing it right. That's totally normal. If you feel your mind wandering and you realise it’s wandering, that’s not a failure, that's actually a moment of mindfulness, a moment of realisation in which you observe your mind has wandered. Psychologists call it meta-cognition, which is actually, bizarrely, one of the states of mind meditation is trying to help you achieve.

Just relax into it. If, for example, your mind wanders when you're supposed to be focusing on your toes, just say 'thinking, thinking’ to yourself or 'worrying, worrying' or 'it's okay to dwell on this.' In that moment you've achieved a state of mindfulness so you should congratulate yourself for that moment of awareness, not chastise yourself.

One of the major problems we have growing up in the west is self-criticism. If something doesn't conform to our expectations, we immediately criticise ourselves for it. That rational, questioning state of mind is fantastic if you’re trying to solve logical problems that can be broken down into nice, bitesize pieces. But you also need to be able to let that go and tap into other states of mind as well. That's what mindfulness allows you to do.

Scientific studies show various benefits of mindfulness, from helping with depression and anxiety to chronic pain relief. One large-scale, peer-reviewed study found that one codified meditation programme known as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is at least as good as drugs for the worst forms of depression*. In fact, the more severe the depression, the more powerful the effect is. There's no doubt in the scientific community over that.

*If someone has suffered three or more bouts of clinical depression, they have an 80% chance of it returning within the next year. People who only use medicines have a relapse rate of 60-70%. Compare that to 40-50% of people who do a mindfulness course that relapse into another depression within a year and the power of mindfulness is clear.

Mindfulness helps break negative mental cycles. It does this by helping you put your life and troubles in a broader context, so if you encounter a difficult situation it will be less likely to trigger patterns of thinking that can lead to stress, depression or anxiety.

Mindfulness allows you to sense when your thoughts are turning negative and not try to change those thoughts, but accept them. It enables you to accept you're having a difficult time at that moment, but also to realise that moment – like all moments in time – will pass, and life will improve again. And that is the great gift of mindfulness: putting all your troubles into context.

When it comes to physical pain, mindfulness has proven benefits too. Firstly, it relaxes you, which helps because a great amount of pain is caused by physical tension. Secondly, it can alter your whole experience of pain for the better. With extensive practice it can actually help your mind turn down its ‘pain amplifier’.

It might sound far-fetched, but clinical trials show that people who have done just a few meditation sessions can reduce their experience of physical pain by about 50%. People who have meditated for years can reduce the intensity of pain by as much as 90%.

LeBron James and Christiano Ronaldo are vocal about how mindfulness has helped them. Other successful athletes are likely using mindfulness techniques without even knowing it. Think of the ultra-marathon runner pushing through pain levels that would have most of us on the phone to NHS Direct, or the MMA fighter who keeps laser focus despite their own blood covering a good portion of the Octagon's canvas. After all, being in tune with your body is a form of mindfulness. 

For athletes, it's a fine line between being fired up and ready to go and being crippled by anxiety and stress. If you’re on the starting line of a 200m race you're going to be nervous. You want to react with lightning speed to the starting gun. Mindfulness could help reduce the frantic nature of that anxiety and stress, while still leaving you with the adrenaline to catapult you down that track. In other words, mindfulness can help you turn feelings of  anxiety and stress from negative energy to positive energy.

You can also use mindfulness for physical training. Think about how many hours you train compared to the time actually spent doing the thing you’re training for. Mindfulness could ensure you get the most from your time spent training by helping you tune into what's going on in your body. You could use it to help you relax and get a good night’s sleep after an intense session.

Mindfulness could even help optimise your approach to nutrition because the enhanced understanding of your bodily sensations could make you better at noticing how certain foods impact energy levels and mood.

Mindfulness is not a quick fix and just like anything else you want to get good at, it needs to be practiced. After all, rather than say, 'I've got a week to get fit for a match', you would realise it will be a long-term effort to get in shape and improve your fitness and skill levels. The same applies to the mind.

Ideally, you should try to do mindfulness techniques for at least 10-20 minutes a day. But bear in mind that if you see mindfulness as a tool for one single aim you probably won't get much benefit from it, but if you see it as a long-term way of creating lasting, positive change for all aspects of your life, you’ll probably wish you had started sooner.

Danny’s best-selling book, Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic world - co-authored by Mark Williams of Oxford University - is an eight-week programme designed to put you in control of your life. It is used as the basis for most mindfulness courses in the UK. There is also a companion app available on iOS and Android devices.