Mindfulness has become a trendy buzzword, bringing with it promises of a calm, clear mind and balanced emotional well-being. But what is mindfulness and how does it achieve these goals?
Mindfulness finds its roots in ancient practises from the East, reaching back to the early teachings of Buddhism. From there it travelled into our modern world with Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn (professor of medicine), who completed the 10-day silent meditation Vipassana that focuses on enhancing awareness of the body. Following this experience, he founded the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program in 1979, in which he used elements of mindfulness to help individuals suffering from chronic pain and illness. Having shown themselves effective, mindfulness techniques were later extended to other populations until their value for everyday life and the general public became recognized.
In its essence, mindfulness is the practice of non-judgmental observation of the present moment with deliberate awareness. In a mindful state, we take in the qualities and facets of a moment and immerse ourselves in our immediate experience. We are all mindful to one degree or another at all times. When you intensely focus on a project, you may find yourself full aware of the task at hand; fully concentrated and mindful of your work. If you are scrolling on Facebook, while a friend is talking to you, you may find you are distracted, you do not remember what they have been saying, and you watch things glide by passively. You still exist as a being in time, but the moment somewhat passes you by; you are being less mindful.
The deliberate nature of directing and maintaining our awareness on our experience fine-tunes our attention regulation skills. We strengthen our ability to attend to what we choose, rather than being pushed around by impulses. Controlling the focus of our attention helps us to become more efficient and productive as it minimizes the impact of distractions. This is particularly useful in times of high stress or when juggling multiple projects. Attending to the present moment can also benefit our emotion regulation. Our thoughts paint scenes with emotional qualities of the past and the future: we create our own anxiety. In the present moment, we are not in the important meeting tomorrow, we are not in the fight we had with our partner yesterday. We are existing in a moment that is full of opportunity. This moment can be observed with non-judgmental curiosity. What does the moment feel like on our skin? What can we smell, taste or hear? Exploring contexts as they are, without automatically interpreting and colouring them with our emotions, can foster compassion both for ourselves and others. Most importantly, we are creating the habit to pause and absorb a situation mindfully, before we react on any level. From this space, we can then form a purposeful response, rather than being driven by stress and becoming overwhelmed, defensive or avoidant.
“Between stimulus and response there’s a space, in that space lies our power to choose our response, in our response lies our growth and our freedom.” (Dr. Viktor Frankl, psychiatrist & Holocaust survivor).
Studies have shown that by letting us pause before physiological responses are initiated, mindfulness can decrease stress hormones and blood pressure, contributing to improved cardiovascular and immuno-health. Likewise, neuropsychological research confirms the benefits of regular mindfulness practice, indicating that it can increase both size and activity of our control centres in the brain, specifically the prefrontal and anterior cingulate cortices. These brain regions are involved in the regulation of emotional responses as well as attentional mechanisms. Correspondingly, the emotion centre in our brains show reduced activity in mindful individuals, indicating decreased automatic emotional reactivity. Therefore, with consistent mindfulness exercises, we strengthen the pathways of our brain that help us to maintain control over our attention and emotions, making this process easier and easier for us over time.
We may choose to be mindful of the sensations in our body, our emotions and our thoughts. The crucial part of this process is recognizing that these three elements are not static, but continuously changing moment by moment. These changes can be very extreme or very subtle. In more metaphorical terms, we can consider ourselves like a mountain: weather, seasons, natural events, people, and animals come and go, leaving their marks on the mountain; however, the mountain itself remains stable and centred. Mindful observation allows us to learn more about ourselves – emotions, thoughts and sensations all bear valuable information for us that can guide our decision making. Such information helps us to identify damaging thought patterns, reveal the roots of unwanted behaviours, process painful emotions, detect health issues early, acknowledge and accept our strengths and weaknesses, and reconnect with loved ones.
So how do we go about becoming mindful? There are a few simple techniques to get you going. A favourite is observing the inflow and outflow of breath. You can choose to really experience the sensations in the nose, above the upper lip, in the throat, in the chest, in the belly. Some find it useful to count their breath cycles up to 10 and repeat, to help maintain attention. Let the breath come as it does, without attempting to change it. A second useful practice is to check in with your body: starting from the top of your head and slowly sliding your attention down along the body as though you were scanning every inch of your body with a light: again observing sensations, experiencing the connection to gravity, recognizing any tension. Observe with curiosity and acknowledgement, as if you were discovering the quality of a sensation for the first time. You can extend this to a daily act, for example, while brushing your teeth, taking a shower or having a candy – really experiencing these routines with all senses. Once you have connected with your body, you can advance to the exploration of your emotions as they roll by in waves. Identify how they feel in your body and what thoughts come along with them – as though you were watching your mind play on a white canvas.
The key to mindful observation is to remain non-judgmental. Try to avoid labelling sensations with words that have strong connotations for you (e.g. pain), as they may automatically influence your experience. When your attention drifts off, bring it back gently, kindly, and patiently to your object of observation. Mindfulness is not about fighting our inner world, but simply changing our relationship to it: We take the time to observe rather than blindly trusting the story our thoughts write, and as a result, we let ourselves embark on a journey of self-discovery, balance and well-being.
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