What is mindfulness?
Published 26 August 2019. Written by Chris Worfolk.
We talk about mindfulness a lot. These days so does society. But those explanations are not always very good, so in this article, I will break down what mindfulness is and how it relates to endurance sport.
Mindfulness and meditations
Mindfulness has its roots in Eastern philosophies and is often confused with meditation. This is understandable as mindfulness is used a lot in meditation and mindfulness exercises, known as practices, are often called meditations.
Mindfulness now stands as a separate concept. Jon Kabat-Zinn came up with the idea of taking the practice of mindfulness, removing the religious elements and creating an evidence-based version to help everybody. His programme was known as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) has given birth to a whole new area of psychology that is now a field on its own.
A working definition
Mindfulness is the practice of keeping our attention focused on the present.
This is hard to do. In life, we often find ourselves thinking about other things. We find ourselves dwelling on the past or allowing our minds to race forward to the future, rather than enjoying the here and now.
This is a critical skill for endurance sports. For example, if you are 20 miles into a 100-mile sportive, you cannot be agonising over forgetting your rain jacket or ruminating on there being 80 miles still to go. You need to focus on pedalling.
Of course, such thoughts come into our head uninvited. There is no magic wand to stop that. But we can choose how we react to them. We can decide whether we allow ourselves to be caught up in them emotionally or whether to notice them and return our attention to the present.
What is the benefit?
Research indicates that mindfulness provides a range of benefits. It was initially used to treat anxiety and depression1, but further studies have shown it to be effective in increasing confidence2, focus3, reducing pain4 and boosts resilience5.
How do we develop these skills?
Building up these skills takes practice, and the fastest way to do that is by using mindfulness exercises, known as meditations or practices.
These typically involve guided audio to which you can listen along. These will guide you through a series of mental tasks designed to increase your control over your attention.
Detached mindfulness is a subset of mindfulness that looks at how we view our thoughts. It promotes the idea that we can observe our thoughts without becoming emotionally involved with them.
When a thought with an emotional attached pops into our head, rather than getting wrapped up in the emotion, we can label it. "That's anxiety" or "that's anger", for example.
I like to use the analogy of a toddler having a tantrum in a supermarket. If you are a parent, you will know it is not pleasant, but it probably happens from time to time (especially if they are tried: and the same thing happens to us adults!).
You have two options in this situation. You can shout at the child and try to force it to calm down. This does not work. Or, you can choose not to give the toddler the attention it is looking for. If you chose the latter option, the toddler pretty quickly realises the tantrum is not working and gives up.
We want to do the same thing in detached mindfulness. We are going to recognise the thought and the emotion, but we are not going to give it the attention it desperately craves. Instead, we are going to label it and let it sit there without shouting back.
Races, training programmes, and facing up to big challenges can often feel overwhelming. Mindfulness can help with this because it prevents our mind from dwelling on these feelings and instead focuses us on the present.
Hofmann, S. G., & Gómez, A. F. (2017). Mindfulness-based interventions for anxiety and depression. Psychiatric clinics, 40(4), 739-749. ↩︎
Weare, K. (2014). Evidence for mindfulness: Impacts on the well-being and performance of school staff. UK: Mindfulness in Schools Project. Association with University of Exeter. ↩︎
Norris, C. J., Creem, D., Hendler, R., & Kober, H. (2018). Brief mindfulness meditation improves attention in novices: Evidence from ERPs and moderation by neuroticism. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 12, 315. ↩︎
Majeed, M. H., Ali, A. A., & Sudak, D. M. (2018). Mindfulness-based interventions for chronic pain: evidence and applications. Asian journal of psychiatry, 32, 79-83. ↩︎
Bajaj, B., & Pande, N. (2016). Mediating role of resilience in the impact of mindfulness on life satisfaction and affect as indices of subjective well-being. Personality and Individual Differences, 93, 63-67. ↩︎