You might have seen articles about mindfulness, and using it to help with everything from weight loss and work pressure to chronic pain management and addiction recovery. But even after reading those articles, you probably find yourself asking “what is mindfulness” exactly? Because it is more about a way of doing things than something you actually do, it is difficult to define.
In fact, a quick search of the internet brings up dozens of different definitions. The Google definition, which is based on the Oxford English Dictionary says it is:
“a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.”
Scott Bishop, a psychologist who studies the effects of mindfulness meditation on stress describes mindfulness as a:
“Non-elaborative, non-judgmental, present-centered awareness in which each thought, feeling, sensation that arises ... is acknowledged and accepted as it is.”
And if you read this article from the Positive Psychology Program site, you will find another 20 definitions collected from a variety of different sources. So as you can see, not even the experts can agree on a single answer to the “what is mindfulness?” question. However, there are three things that all of these definitions have in common.
Mindfulness means being consciously aware
Showering, driving, making coffee, breathing. These are all things we do every day. But we do them subconsciously, without really thinking about what we are doing. Instead we are thinking about a hundred other things. Like the argument you had with your partner last night. The meeting you’re headed to. The post you just saw on Facebook. The holiday you’re planning for Christmas.
If you’ve ever driven a car that isn’t yours and turned on the wipers instead of your flashers, you’ll know what we’re talking about. You’re on autopilot, and the autopilot says flashers are on the right. When you’re being mindful, you are consciously and deliberately focusing your attention on yourself, your surroundings and what you’re doing.
Mindfulness is about this moment right now
Whenever we aren’t fully focused on the task at hand, our mind wanders off on a little mission of its own. We might get caught up in replaying memories from the past, whether that past memory is from an hour ago or a decade ago. Or we’ll head into the future; daydreaming, planning, wondering, worrying, hoping about a multitude of things.
Although we are often told to live in the moment, we very rarely do. Being mindful means being completely engaged in the experience of the current moment. You don’t think about the past, you stop worrying about the future. You are here, in this moment – and all your thoughts are about what you are experiencing right now.
Mindfulness is non-judgmental
If you are angry right now, then say “I am angry”. It doesn’t matter if your anger is deserved or righteous or foolish. You are angry and that is okay. Being mindful does not mean that you should be controlling, suppressing or stopping your thoughts or feelings. It just means that you trying to pay attention to them as they occur – without attaching a label or judging them in any way.
Think of being mindful as standing to one side and watching yourself feeling, hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling or touching those things. Distancing yourself like this allows you to be consciously aware of those thoughts, emotions and sense perceptions without getting swept away by them. And that means you’re less likely to allow your autopilot to do whatever it usually does in a moment like this.
This might mean eating a little slower because you savor each bite a little more. It might mean not punching a wall, even though you’re spitting mad. It might mean calling a recovery center instead of satisfying that craving because you’re struggling to cope. Because you are consciously aware of what you are feeling right now, and you accept that those feelings exist. And this allows you to make a conscious decision about what you’re going to do next.
So where does mindfulness come from?
Although it is only in the last decade or so that mindfulness has become a popular practice, it has actually been around for thousands of years. Or let’s rather say that the original form of mindfulness has been practiced by Buddhists for thousands of years. Back in 1979 Jon Kabat-Zinn stripped away all religious overtones and developed his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programs at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
The initial aim of this eight week program was to help patients deal with chronic pain while avoiding addiction to painkillers. He realized that patients were trying to mentally escape or avoid the pain, which ultimately caused more mental distress and exhaustion. In other words, they were making their situation worse by trying to avoid the problem.
Because mindfulness as we know it today is not dependant on any belief system or ideology, anyone can try it. Whether you are Christian or Pagan, Muslim or Atheist, or follow any of the many religions out there – you can practice mindfulness. And although it was originally designed for pain management, mindfulness is beneficial in a wide variety of situations. Some prime examples include:
Does mindfulness really work?
Although mindfulness is not like full blown meditation, it is meditative. Combine that with the fact that it is derived from Buddhist traditions, and you might start thinking that it is far too “New Agey” or “woowoo spiritual” to really work as advertised. You would be wrong though, because there are literally dozens of studies and research papers about the effectiveness and benefits of mindfulness. These studies include the following:
What are the benefits of mindfulness?
Now that you know what mindfulness is, and that it is effective – you might be wondering what the benefits are. Well here are just a few of them, along with links to studies showing those benefits.
How to get started with practicing mindfulness
Take 3 mindful breaths
The first and easiest way to start being mindful is to take three mindful breaths, no matter where you are, what you’re doing or the time of day. You breathe all the time, without ever thinking about it. By focusing your attention on your breath you are able to still your mind, step into the present moment and give your system a “soft reboot”.
Perform a body scan
A body scan is a meditative process where you consciously think about and notice everything your body is feeling. From how your toes feel in your shoes, to the air moving against your face. It can be done sitting up or lying down, and a single body scan can last anywhere from 3 minutes to 45 minutes or more.
While evidence shows that people who practice body scans for longer reap more benefits, it doesn’t really matter how long you do it for. And if you’re not sure how to actually do a body scan, then just search for a guided body scan or script and choose the one that suits you best.
Do one routine activity mindfully
Whether it is washing your hands, drinking coffee or eating lunch – choose one thing that you are going to give your full attention to. In the beginning it may be best to do this somewhere that people won’t interrupt you, but in time you could do it during a meeting, at your desk or while friends and family are with you. Just remember that “single tasking” is not a good idea if you need to be focused on several things at once – such as while you’re driving!
Your mind will probably wander, but don’t beat yourself up because you lost focus. Just return to your breath, then carry on from the last point you remember.
A final note
By now, you should have a good idea of what mindfulness is and where it originated. You know that there is clinical research and numerous studies about how effective it is. You are aware of the benefits and you may have even read some of the articles and studies about those benefits. And although you might not be searching for a mindfulness course near you right now – you have some simple mindfulness exercises that you can start practicing on your own.
Just remember that while there are dozens of benefits to practicing mindfulness, sometimes it is better to set your mind free and let it wander. In fact, it has been reported that creativity and insight might depend on a little bit of unrestricted daydreaming. So take into consideration that Buddhism is about finding a middle way between spiritual and worldly concerns.
So learn to find the balance between letting your mind take a break and being aware of everything about yourself and your immediate environment. If you are interested in the use of mindfulness as part of a treatment program for substance misuse disorder or relapse prevention then contact the caring experts at Pemarro for more information and guidance.