What is Mindfulness?
In a spiritual context, the formal practice of “mindfulness” dates back to the time of the Buddha, about 2,500 years ago. A multitude of research studies now show that mindfulness meditation can be an effective tool for things like stress management, anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and eating disorders (Williams, Kolar, Reger, and Pearson, 2001; Astin, 1997; Shapiro, Schwartz, and Bonner, 1998; Kabat-Zinn, Lipworth, and Burney, 1985). This practice also offers numerous cognitive benefits related to memory, focus and creativity, and can enhance interpersonal and professional functioning (Goleman, Emotional Intelligence).
So, what exactly is mindfulness? Simply put, the practice refers to “moment-by-moment awareness” (Germer, 2005). In broader terms, mindfulness is about paying attention to the present moment, without judgment and with a sense of acceptance and compassion for whatever you’re experiencing (Kabat-Zinn, 2003). The practice doesn’t say that you have to like what’s there; rather, it’s about noticing and cultivating an internal attitude of acceptance to what is, without trying to push it away or cling to it. This isn’t to be confused with passivity. Mindfulness is about actively engaging in the present moment, and choosing to act (or not), from this place of heightened awareness.
Mindfulness can be developed by practicing meditation as well as by simply paying attention to the present moment in everyday experiences. For example, when you are washing the dishes – just wash the dishes. Pay attention to what the water feels like, the smell of the dish soap and the texture of the sponge. Notice the excess food as it washes off the plate into the sink. As the mind wanders off to other thoughts like “what’s on TV tonight” or “I can’t stand doing the dishes,” gently bring your attention back to simply “doing the dishes.”
As Jack Kornfield, Buddhist teacher and psychologist so eloquently put it, “mindfulness is an innate human capacity to deliberately pay full attention to where we are, to our actual experience, and to learn from it. Much of our day we spend on automatic pilot. People know the experience of driving somewhere, pulling up to the curb and all of a sudden realizing, ‘Wow, I was hardly aware I was even driving. How did I get here?’ When we pay attention, it is gracious, which means that there is space for our joys and sorrows, our pain and losses, all to be held in a peaceful way.”
How mindfulness can be helpful
Buddhist psychology recognizes that life is inherently full of pain, no matter who you are or where you live. Fear, loss, sickness, aging and death are things we all come to experience (albeit to greater and lesser degrees, and at different times). But, instead of simply feeling our discomfort or pain, as humans we often add a layer of emotional suffering to our experience, by adding an unhealthy narrative or “story.”
For example, say you have a skiing accident and break your leg. Clearly, this will be painful and the recovery period will be disruptive to your life. You won’t be able to get around as easily and you won’t be able to do certain things you enjoy, such as walking freely or taking a jog. That in and of itself is “painful” on both a physical and psychological level.
Where we get into trouble, however, is by adding an additional layer of suffering in the form of negative self-talk (i.e., the narrative or story). We may ruminate on the accident and judge ourselves, saying things like, “oh, I was such a dummy for going skiing that weekend” or “I’m never going to be able to ski again,” or “if only I was a better skier, this wouldn’t have happened.” Viewing the accident from these vantage points will contribute to uncomfortable emotions, such as fear and shame, but won’t do much beyond that.
Alternatively, mindfulness offers a way to experience whatever has happened, without adding furthering suffering to it. Using the same skiing example, if we pay attention to the physical sensations and discomfort, and notice our thoughts without feeding into them (both of which are mindfulness techniques), we will likely be in a position to respond more skillfully to this trying situation. We’ll be more “freed up” to think clearly about the situation, rather than getting lost in the judgmental narrative. From this perspective, we may find ourselves cultivating more self-compassion, and empathy for others who have injured themselves. We may also grow more appreciative of our physical abilities by having this experience of “loss” in the form of a broken leg. We’ll still have to heal from the injury, but by relating to it mindfully, we can avoid adding an additional layer of psychological discomfort to the experience.
Mindfulness can have a transformative effect by “creating more space” around problems. Let’s take a metaphor related to salt, to illustrate this point. If you put a tablespoon of salt into a 12 oz. glass of water, how will it taste? Very salty, of course. Alternatively, if you put the same amount of salt into a huge freshwater lake and then take a sip, you won’t taste any salt at all!
By applying the same principle to a difficult emotional state such as fear or anger, mindfulness can help create more room around those compelling emotions. This practice then moves the fear or anger from “front and center” in our minds, to more of a background role. We then can operate and make decisions from a broader perspective, rather than the narrowly defined one that involves preoccupation with the anger or fear. This is liberating.
Dr. Daniel Siegel, Professor of Psychiatry and Co-Director of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center, has done extensive research that suggests mindfulness can actually change our brains for the better, by not only contributing to healthier minds, but also healthier bodies and relationships. He states that “the ancient and universal practice of mindfulness has been shown recently to improve physiological, mental, and relational well-being. Mindfulness is often thought of as a way of being aware of one’s present moment sensory experience without grasping onto judgments. An Interpersonal Neurobiology (IPNB) exploration of mindful awareness suggests that mindfulness can be considered a relational process in which you become your own best friend.”
Want to learn more about mindfulness? Try one of the following exercises, based on the work Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD., founder of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and author of best-selling book, Wherever You Go, There You Are.