There has been a lot of recent talk about mindfulness, but the reality is that mindfulness has been around for a very long time. In fact, mindfulness practice can be traced back and found in many religious and philosophical traditions—from orthodox christianity, to buddhism, to stoicism, and more.
It’s not surprising that there has been such an upsurge in interest in mindfulness, as mindfulness has been shown to help ameliorate stress, anxiety and depression. Mindfulness is a core theme throughout many therapy modalities and is now being taught in many hospitals, schools, corporations, and the like.
When it comes to optimizing mental, physical and spiritual health it’s useful to think of mindfulness as similar to the foundation of one’s house. Everything is built on and enhanced by learning this practice.
What is mindfulness?
In a nutshell, mindfulness involves becoming aware of your internal and external world. Mindfulness practice is all about being intentional and nonjudgemental. That is, when we are mindful, we tend to approach situations from a place of openness and to all the fluctuations that happen within a particular moment.
Through mindfulness we fully enter into each our present situation, realizing that life is a process of constant change. The opposite of this would be trying to reject, suppress, shut down or avoid what’s happening in the moment. Instead, mindfulness teaches us to dive in to each moment.
Mindfulness helps us become aware.
Mindfulness helps us become aware of as much as we can and we can use that awareness as a launching pad. Essentially, it gives us a say over how we will respond when we are feeling upset or triggered. For example, if we are struggling with an addiction and are early on in our recovery, being able to notice and identify our urges allows us to choose a different response. Thus, instead of giving into our urges to use drugs or alcohol, our awareness gives us the option to act differently.
Marsha Linehan says, “It is very difficult to accept reality with our eyes closed. If we want to accept what’s happening to us, we have to know what’s happening to us.”
Mindfulness helps us become more aware of our thoughts, emotions, and our physical body—it is particularly effective in helping us to reduce stress.
Again, in its simplest form, mindfulness is the act of purposefully paying attention. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
“Mindfulness practice” then, is the repeated effort of bringing our minds back to the present moment, without judgement and without attachment. It involves letting go of judgements and letting go of attachments.
Common misconceptions about mindfulness.
Mindfulness is often confused with meditation. However, mindfulness does not require meditation. Meditation is the practice of mindfulness in a particular, directed way—for example, while sitting or standing for a certain length of time.
While everyone can practice mindfulness, not everyone can practice mediation—some may have physical or health related limitations that prohibit them from sitting or standing for long periods of time. On the other hand, some people may be afraid to observe their thoughts, fearing that they will lose control.
Mindfulness is not about getting results.
It is important to remember that the goal of mindfulness is not to “get results” but to be mindful for the sake of mindfulness. Thus, when starting to learn mindfulness try let go of expectations and even reasons for practicing mindfulness. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, the goal is to “practice without trying to get anywhere.”
By staying out of the results game and letting go of expectations, we actually get somewhere—we become more fully present in the here and now instead of being lost in our thoughts without even realizing it. By changing our focus and slowing down, we allow ourselves the chance to participate.