What is Mindfulness Anyway?

Blue BuddhaWhat are you doing right now? You are probably sitting and reading this. But what else are you doing? Thinking? Eating? Listening to music? Spending time with your family?

“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: On purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”

I like Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness. Kabat-Zinn, if you haven’t heard of him, is the founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. He also wrote the books Wherever You Go, There You Are, and Coming to our Senses

Mindfulness is a term used to describe the practice of bringing one’s awareness back (i.e. from the past or the future or distraction of any kind) into the present moment.

Mindfulness can be practiced formally as a meditation, and it is also a practice that can be done at any time. It does not require sitting a certain way, or even focusing on the breath. It does require bringing your focus on whatever is happening in the present moment, and simply noticing the mind’s usual commentary. That being said, mindfulness meditation definitely helps one’s awareness to settle down, and eventually creates a silent backdrop behind activity – this makes it easier to practice present moment awareness.

Any activity done mindfully is a form of meditation. Mindfulness can be done in almost any situation. You can be mindful of the sensations in one’s feet while walking, or the feeling of warm soapy water on the hands while doing dishes. You can also become mindful of the mind’s judgement and continual commentary: “I wish I didn’t have to walk any further, I like the sound of the leaves rustling, I wish washing dishes wasn’t so boring and the soap wasn’t drying out my skin”, etc.

Let’s look at the practice of eating mindfully – when we sit down to eat we are purposefully aware of the process of eating. We’re deliberately noticing the way our body is positioned, the sensations in our body, and the mind and body’s responses to those sensations. You might notice the mind wandering, and when it does, you can purposefully bring your attention back to the eating. Mindfulness is a continual refocusing on the present moment.

When one eats without awareness, you may in theory know you are eating, but you might be thinking about many other things at the same time, and may also be watching TV, talking, or reading – or all of those. So a very small part of our awareness is absorbed with eating, and we may be only barely aware of the physical sensations and even less aware of our thoughts and emotions. We almost miss the experience. Have you ever eaten a meal and not remembered eating the whole thing? That is the opposite of mindfulness!

Why would someone want to practice mindfulness? Well, it is one of the meditation techniques practiced and proven to be effective in many research projects leading to:

  • Increased self-awareness, self-trust, and self- acceptance
  • Enhanced appreciation of life
  • Serenity in the face of difficulties
  • Lasting decreases in a variety of stress-related physical symptoms, including chronic pain
  • Significant decreases in anxiety and depression
  • Improved concentration and creativity
  • Improved immune system functioning
  • Decreased symptoms secondary to cancer
  • More accepting attitude toward life and its challenges
  • Now who wouldn’t want that?

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