What is Mindfulness?
Jon Kabat Zinn, founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally”.
Another way of putting it is this – to be mindful means your mind and your body are in the same place. For example, if you’re having dinner with a friend, you are fully present to that experience, instead of your thoughts wandering somewhere else (the past or future) or judging what you are experiencing (she’s so dramatic).
What is the Opposite of Mindfulness?
Yet another way of understanding mindfulness is to look at its opposite – mindlessness. To be mindless is to be on autopilot mode, like:
- When we polish a tub of ice cream and we’re surprised how that happened.
- When we drive to a place and we don’t remember the journey of getting there.
We’re also mindless when something happens, perceived as negative, and we immediately inflict criticism and judgment to others and ourselves, spin on our thoughts, or turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms.
It’s a deeply ingrained habit that we continually reinforce to a point where it becomes a trigger response to events we perceive as uncomfortable or not pleasant.
We become entangled in our destructive thoughts, and we believe them to be true.
So What is Being Mindful?
When we are being mindful, the opposite of being mindless, we become aware of the thoughts; we are present to the sensations we feel in our body; we are being with the emotions that arise, and we pay attention to the events around us.
In essence, we become an impartial observer when we are mindful. We hold space for the thoughts, sensations, and emotions that arise. We observe as they appear and disappear, as they rise and fall, as they come into our awareness and as it leaves.
We’re not denying them, we’re not changing them, and we’re not getting entangled in the thoughts, emotions, and sensations. We are witnessing from a distance.
Mindfulness can be described as a psychological process whereby you bring your attention to experiences happening in the here and now. You focus on something in the moment, such as your breath or the sounds around you, in order to enter a state of alert relaxation.
Mindfulness can be developed in a number of ways. Some schools teach the use of breath. You can observe it as it goes up your nostrils and then back out, or follow it as it goes down to your lungs and back out again. You can gently pay attention to the rise and fall of your thorax and abdomen. Other schools may require focusing on a point either on your body or around it, or even sometimes within it.
Mindfulness is something that is practiced in many religions worldwide, most notably Buddhism. In this Eastern religious practice, meditation and training are used to develop mindfulness, which can then help to develop self-understanding. Self-understanding over time leads to freedom from suffering, the conditions of which is believed in Buddhism to be one of the three concrete realities of existence (along with impermanence and the non-self).
Incidentally, practicing mindfulness has been found to have a positive effect on well-being, both mental and physical. Although this is not the point of mindful meditation, it is the benefit that has seen mindfulness become a catchword worldwide—particularly in the West.
What is the Origin of Mindfulness
The Western practice of mindfulness is based on the practice of vipassana, the Hindi word for insight, and sati, the awareness of present events. Sati is one among seven of the factors of enlightenment and the correct practice of mindfulness (called pali) is the seventh of the Noble Eightfold Path to Enlightenment.
Even a meditative practice as short as 10 minutes a day regularly can have a profound effect on one’s health. With more practice, it becomes easier to focus on the breath.
Science Behind Mindfulness
There is a wealth of scientific evidence that supports the claim that mindfulness is good for your mental and physical well-being. There were nearly 500 mindfulness research publications in 2012 and the number has grown since then. Here are some of the scientific findings in relation to mindfulness.
Mindfulness can change brain structure through what is called brain plasticity, and thereby increase one’s ability to focus, memorize, fight stress, make decisions, develop empathy and be more compassionate.
Mindfulness breeds creativity. Open monitoring (a form of meditation where a participant is receptive to all thoughts) can help develop divergent thinking, which is essential for creativity. Open monitoring is distinct from the commonly practice Focused Attention style of meditation, where one object is the center of attention.
Mindfulness adds gray matter density. Gray matter in the brain is responsible for perspective taking, learning and memory and emotional regulation.
Mindfulness increases stress resilience and immune strength. Emotion regulation and positive feelings are brought about through mindfulness. It has also been shown to improve immune response.
Mindfulness improves self-compassion. People with more self-compassion are better able to cope with life problems. They feel less anxiety about their problems.
Mindfulness lowers emotional reactivity. When something goes wrong, most of us lash out emotionally. We feel betrayed at the slightest insult, devastated by accidental events, near suicidal at the mere thought of injury.
Emotional reactivity was built into us as a way to deal with life-threatening dangers on the savannah but is now hijacking our ability to appropriately assess situations. Long-term meditation has actually been shown to reverse this trend.
How to Apply Being Mindful in Your Everyday Life
You can practice mindfulness at work, at home, and pretty much anywhere. You can start with 5-10 minutes a day of meditation. Focus on the present moment, taking in all that happens around you without any judgment, aversion, desire, or any of the other emotional reactions we have to the world and its events. You can start with the breath.
Applying it in your everyday life is more than just sitting in the lotus position for a few minutes each day. It has to be something you take with you everywhere. To do so, keep the following in mind.
- Your mind is always with you, and so too should be mindfulness.
- Take a few deep breaths and notice your surroundings as you wake up.
- Make lists every day of the things that make you grateful to be alive.
- Throughout the day, notice your breath.
Whenever you become angry or stressed (e.g. in traffic), instead of reacting, just take a few minutes to be mindful. You’ll find that much of the time, the stress disappears within seconds. Commit to a certain time for meditation every day. Set a timer. Get comfortable. Observe.
5-Minute Mindfulness Technique
Here is a simple five minute meditation, based on a sample given by the founder of a major meditation-based stress-reduction method.
- Sitting comfortably, with stable posture and straight back, place your arms and hands in a relaxed position.
- Close the eyes or just gaze gently.
- Notice your physical sensations. The ground beneath you, the air around you, the sounds near you. Scan your whole body, from head to toe.
- Now start focusing on breath. Notice with it comes in, when it causes your chest to rise and when it goes out. Follow your breath as it goes in and out. Count to 10 with every inhale and exhale, and then back to 1. Repeat until you can learn to just focus on the breath without counting.
- Whenever your mind wanders, just notice and bring attention back to the breath.
Paying Attention in the Here and Now Can Be Infinitely Useful
The practice of regular meditation not only improves your mental and physical health, it can help you develop a better understanding of yourself, others and the world around you. That kind of benefit is something that can last a lifetime.
As with anything worth doing, mindfulness meditation needs time and effort. There will be days when you don’t want to do it. That’s fine, so long as it does not become a habit. Do not strain yourself, after all the practice is supposed to be relaxing!
Most importantly, enjoy doing it. That’s the best way to ensure regular practice and bring about true change.