If you have ever disappeared into your thoughts and stopped paying attention to the present moment, then you are what is called a human being.
If you are able to habitually recognise when you do this, and to either consciously follow your thoughts or keep your focus on the present moment, then you are also what is called mindful.
Mindfulness can therefore be a very useful skill to have, particularly in the busy, often stressful modern world in which we live and particularly when faced with the demands of life in the armed forces.
What does, however, mindfulness entail?
For example, do you think mindfulness and meditation are the same thing? And do you think of meditation as something anybody can do? Or does it conjure up an image of a badass levitating Jedi Knight character disappearing into their heads and moving rocks, spaceships or throwing the results of sci-fi battles?
Whereas it would be nice to be able to make objects or ourselves float in the air, that is definitely not necessary to benefit from mindfulness.
All you need is yourself and a willingness to learn it.
And the first thing to learn is that mindfulness and meditation, while they overlap, are not the same things.
Mindfulness, as noted above, is not about disappearing into your own mind but, rather, just the opposite: being aware of the present moment, including your own thoughts and feelings.
Meditation, meanwhile, is the main activity used for practicing mindfulness (though not the only one) and it usually involves sitting quietly and focusing your attention on your breath, or possibly a noise or chant.
Another way of describing mindfulness might be the ability to revert to a state of simply witnessing things, including one’s thoughts (i.e. as if they are just random external events.) That, at least, is how the popular author, philosopher and podcaster Sam Harris has described it in one of his meditations.
And a third and more concise definition might be that given by Captain Pat Burgess on the British Army’s mindfulness webpage: one’s mind and body being in the same place at the same time and with the same focus.
If you are ready to focus on focusing, you can watch Captain Burgess in the video just below.
You can find out more on the British Army’s mindfulness page, which can be found here.
Do bear in mind that the Army’s page on mindfulness makes it clear Captain Burgess’ course is not a substitute for care from a qualified healthcare provider, particularly if you have a serious mental health issue.
Beyond that and the introductory video, the course is split into eight parts, with one part to be completed a week.
The first week deals with our propensity for autopilot, to slip into what Captain Burgess calls the fight, flight or freeze response. He says that, instead, we can learn to use our own body as an anchor point for awareness of the present, and therefore awareness of the mind, and what it is doing (i.e. such as going into the fight, flight or freeze response when it does not need to.)
A body scan exercise is there as a means by which to practice this skill, and it is repeated throughout the course.
Captain Burgess also assigns ‘homework’, though not in the traditional sense that you might associate with your school days. Rather, as well as the meditation and body scan exercises, much of what he gets you to do throughout the course is to simply be mindful about how you do certain regular activities, such as taking a walk or hoovering your house.
As he explains it himself at one point:
“Being mindful doesn’t take any time out of your life. The practices I’m giving you to sharpen the mind, i.e. the meditations, they take a little bit of time, but that’s just the reconditioning, the exercising of the muscle to enable you to focus your attention. But the activities themselves are normal, everyday activities. You don’t have to slow the experience down to notice it. You just carry it out as normal, but, with all your attention focused there: your mind, your body, same focus, same place, same time. It really is as simple as that.”
He also gets you to do a sound-based seated meditation where you first focus on sounds that arise outside and let them disappear. You are then encouraged to transfer this technique to your thoughts, letting them arise and then pass by like clouds, without judging them or taking them too seriously.
Before long, the applicability of these techniques to one’s life, and to a military life in particular, become quite apparent. Captain Burgess brings your attention to the impermanence of things, including adversity and its associated stress, and he points out that we can learn to let it just come and go in the same way thoughts or sounds in the environment do.
The penultimate lesson is the course is entitled ‘You Are Not Your Mind’ and it emphasizes the idea that the mind is a tool to be used by us, not something we should think of as being us.
This is a concept central to mindfulness and meditation. Once again, Sam Harris prompts you to think of the Eiffel Tower, a red bus and George Washington in one of his meditations, and then says:
“How could any of these appearances be what you are? You’re simply noticing them.”
“As a matter of experience, you’re not identical to anything you can notice, by the mere fact that you’re noticing it, and by the mere fact that it’s changing in each moment, none of these things can be what you are.”
Captain Burgess goes further, encouraging practitioners to think about the different roles they have taken on throughout their adulthood and to see them for what they are, as just roles. He says that the real you, the person you were at 18 to 20 years old before you took on various roles in life, is still there in the background.
“That’s the one that sends us inspiration”, he says. “That’s the one that puts us on the straight-and-narrow when we’re about to make a huge mistake. And this is the one that we really really need to be listening to, and paying attention to.”
And finishing off the course, he says again:
“You own your mind, it’s your tool.”
In other words, you decide if you want to follow a thought or not.
And if reading this far has given you a thought you would like to follow to learn more about meditation and mindfulness, once again, you can head over the mindfulness page on the Army’s website, which can be found here.