Some of you might have heard of the word mindfulness before, and wondered what is it exactly. Is it some sort of relaxation technique? Is it religious? Is it a fad?
Though it has its roots in Buddhist meditation, mindfulness is not religious – and neither it is a relaxation technique - it is a psychological capacity that we all have, but don’t often tap into.
Jon Kabat Zinn, a Professor of Medicine Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and the person credited with bringing mindfulness to the West, defines mindfulness as “the awareness that emerges through (a) paying attention on purpose, (b) in the present moment, and (c) non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.”
It’s worth exploring in detail what these three components mean:
1. Paying attention on purpose
Have you ever started your day with a clear plan of priorities but at the end of the day achieved only a few of them? You feel like the hours just flew by, but 8-9 hours later, can’t remember how you exactly spent your time?
Or maybe you’ve found yourself checking email or Facebook for the millionth time during the day? Or driven from work and arrived at home only to realise you remember nothing about your journey?
If any of this sounds familiar, you are not alone. Research shows that the average person spends a whopping 47 percent of their time mind wandering1 – thinking about something other than what they’re doing. In other words, we operate on autopilot a huge portion of our day. The shocking thing is – the more our minds wander, the less happy we are.1 In fact, mind-wandering activates our brain’s default-mode network (DMN) and studies shows that increased DMN activity makes us more vulnerable to anxiety and depression.2 Paying attention on purpose – with conscious and deliberate effort – breaks us out of the cycle of mindlessness and autopilot behaviour.
2. Paying attention to the present moment
Left to its own devices, our mind gets caught in an endless habitual cycle of either planning the future or replaying the past – from what we want to eat for lunch to what’s next on our to-do list to what we’ll say to our boss at work tomorrow or who did what to whom, why something happened or didn’t happen, and so on. In other words, we are very rarely fully present in the moment.
The present moment is the only moment in which our life occurs and we neglect it at a great cost. We miss out on our lives when we are not aware of our direct experience in the present moment.
Mindfulness involves being completely engaged in our moment-to-moment experiences, even if those moments might be difficult – we let go of the tension caused by wanting things to be different, the desire of constantly wanting more, and instead we accept and embrace the present moment just as it is.
3. Paying attention non-judgmentally
With mindfulness we pay attention to the present moment non-judgmentally – that is, without trying to control or label our experiences. For instance, a lot of the times when our thoughts or emotions are painful, our natural reaction is to control them by either suppressing or resisting them or analysing or ruminating over them. With mindfulness, we simply become aware of each thought, feeling or sensation as they arise in the present moment and we let them pass away without clinging to them or avoiding them. Rather than judgment, we adopt an attitude of curiosity and kindness towards our thoughts, feelings and sensations.
This allows us to become an ‘impartial witness’ to our present moment experience, making us less likely to mechanically play out habitual ways of thinking and living. Through this we gain can gain choice and freedom in our lives.
Why practise mindfulness?
Thousands of psychological, neuroscience and medical studies have documented the physical and mental health benefits of mindfulness.
Here are just some of them:
- mindfulness reduces stress;3 possibly through shrinking the brain’s “fight or flight” centre, the amygdala, the primal region of the brain involved in the initiation of the body’s response to stress.
- mindfulness reduces depression4 with one study5 showing that it might be as effective as antidepressants in fighting depression and preventing relapse
- mindfulness is good for our emotional health6 – it increases our positive emotions while reducing negative emotions
- mindfulness boosts our immune system’s ability to fight off illness7
- mindfulness helps us to focus by improving our memory8 and our attention skills9
- mindfulness helps us to battle weight problems10
- mindfulness enhances romantic relationships11 – creates greater acceptance between couples and makes them more satisfied with their relationship
- mindfulness develops our altruistic tendencies12 and compassion for others13 as well as compassion towards ourselves14
- mindfulness helps with pain management.15
How do you practise mindfulness?
Broadly speaking, there are two ways to practice mindfulness - formally or informally. The formal practice of mindfulness is done through meditation.
The informal practice is your daily life! Mindfulness is about living your life as if all the moments of your life really mattered. So anything you do with full awareness and attention can become a form of mindfulness practice – from doing the dishes to taking a shower to sitting on a chair.
What to do next?
If you are curious, find a mindfulness meditation course to take in person – you never know; it may be a life changing experience!
Otherwise, you can also try out guided meditations at home. Insight Timer and Headspace are good apps; and you can also visit the following websites for a range of useful guided meditations:
- Scientific American (November, 2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy one. Retrieved from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-wandering-mind-is-an-un/
- Mindfulness MD (July, 2014). Neuroscience of Mindfulness: Default Mode Network, Meditation & Mindfulness. Retrieved from http://www.mindfulnessmd.com/2014/07/08/neuroscience-of-mindfulness-default-mode-network-meditation-mindfulness/#
- Weinstein, N., Brown, K. W., & Ryan, R. M. (2009). A multi-method examination of the effects of mindfulness on stress attribution, coping, and emotional well-being. Journal of Research in Personality, 43(3), 374-385. Retrieved from http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/images/uploads/Weinstein-MindfulnessStress.pdf
- Barnhofer, T., Crane, C., Hargus, E., Amarasinghe, M., Winder, R., & Williams, J. M. G. (2009). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy as a treatment for chronic depression: A preliminary study. Behaviour research and therapy, 47(5), 366-373. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19249017
- Segal, Z. V., Bieling, P., Young, T., MacQueen, G., Cooke, R., Martin, L., et al. (2010). Antidepressant monotherapy vs sequential pharmacotherapy and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, or placebo, for relapse prophylaxis in recurrent depression. Archives of General Psychiatry, 67(12), 1256-1264. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/12/101206161734.htm
- Keng, S., Smoski, M. J., & Robins, C. J. (2011). Effects of mindfulness on psychological health: A review of empirical studies. Clinical psychology review, 31(6), 1041-1056. Retrieved from http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/images/uploads/Keng_Review_of_studies_on_mindfulness.pdf
- Davidson, R. J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli, S. F., et al. (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic medicine, 65(4), 564-570. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12883106
- Zeidan, F., Johnson, S. K., Diamond, B. J., David, Z., & Goolkasian, P. (2010). Mindfulness meditation improves cognition: Evidence of brief mental training. Consciousness and cognition, 19(2), 597-605. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20363650
- Moore, A. W., Gruber, T., Derose, J., & Malinowski, P. (2012). Regular, brief mindfulness meditation practice improves electrophysiological markers of attentional control. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 6, 18. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22363278
- Greater Good Centre (June, 2012). Better Eating through Mindfulness. Retrieved from http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/better_eating_through_mindfulness
- Carson, J. W., Carson, K. M., Gil, K. M., & Baucom, D. H. (2004). Mindfulness-based relationship enhancement. Behavior therapy, 35(3), 471-494. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0005789404800285
- Greater Good Centre (May, 2013). How to train the compassionate brain. Retrieved from http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_to_train_the_compassionate_brain
- Condon, P., Desbordes, G., Miller, W. B., & DeSteno, D. (2013). Meditation increases compassionate responses to suffering. Psychological Science, 24(10), 2125-2127. Retrieved from https://static.squarespace.com/static/52853b8ae4b0a6c35d3f8e9d/t/528d263ce4b04aa0e2083b1e/
- Greater Good Centre (February, 2013). Does mindfulness make you more compassionate? Retrieved from http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/does_mindfulness_make_you_compassionate
- Psychology Today (Jan, 2015). Can mindfulness meditation really reduce pain and suffering? Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/mindfulness-in-frantic-world/201501/can-mindfulness-meditation-really-reduce-pain-and-suffering