You’ve probably heard somewhere that you should start meditating or practice mindfulness. I’m going to tell you that as well, but why? What exactly is mindfulness and why is it so good for us? How does it work, and how do we get started?
Mindfulness, the way we understand it today, has been sneaking its way into the public sphere since it was first developed in the 1970s. In the 2010s, mindfulness finally went mainstream and it’s been blowing up on apps, books, and websites.
Mindfulness is closely related to our wellness journey in that it supports and creates a strong foundation for mental and physical health.
Many of the ideas behind mindfulness predate their modern applications. The practice of mindfulness that is growing in popularity today has roots in Buddhist and Zen meditation.
The founder of the American wellness movement, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, was influenced by Buddhist philosophy when he developed his 8-week program: Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR.
This program is the oldest mindfulness-based intervention and has influenced many others. It is used as the standard in most psychological mindfulness research, which has found many exciting benefits of its practice. Modern technologies for imaging the brain have allowed neuroscientists the opportunity to begin exploring how mindfulness affects specific areas.
The best part of mindfulness is that anyone can learn to practice and strengthen it. I’ll explore some formal and informal practices at the end of this article.
In all, we’ll look at:
- What is the meaning and history of mindfulness?
- What are the benefits of a mindfulness practice?
- How does mindfulness work to produce these benefits?
- What are some ways of practicing mindfulness?
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is commonly defined as a purposeful moment-to-moment awareness of the present, cultivated without judgment. It is derived from sati, which is commonly understood to mean attention in Buddhist texts. The term mindfulness was first used in 1881, in a translation of Buddhist texts by T.W. Rhys Davids, an English scholar.
Mindfulness is a purposeful moment-to-moment awareness of the present, cultivated without judgment.
Rhys Davids’ decision to translate sati as mindfulness, instead of attention, has played a key role in the evolution of mindfulness over the past 140 years. Mindfulness, as it is used today, strays from the Buddhist idea of sati in a number of ways.
Mindfulness as we understand it today is based on the Mindfulness-based stress reduction program developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. We’ll look at some of the foundations for MBSR to get a full picture of mindfulness.
Eric Harrison, a mindfulness and meditation teacher, has translated the Buddhist texts since Rhys Davids and explores what Buddhism meant by sati. By understanding sati and how it differs from how mindfulness is often taught today, we can enrich our mindfulness practice.
Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is often considered the founder of the American wellness movement, combined Buddhist, Zen, and vipassana meditation techniques with modern cognitive-behavioral psychology to create his secular Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program.
MBSR was designed to help regular people implement mindfulness in their daily lives. The goal is to help improve a variety of life issues, including stress, anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and insomnia.
Some techniques and ideas taught in MBSR, and other mindfulness programs:
- Mindful awareness of internal emotions, thoughts, and feeling
- Mindful awareness of external senses and events
- Mindful awareness of the interactions between internal and external aspects
- Non-judgemental curiosity
- Acceptance of natural pain, loss, and change
- Bringing attention to the present
MBSR uses formal techniques such as breath awareness, body scan, and various forms of meditation. It also teaches informal techniques; ways to practice mindfulness in daily activities.
Mindfulness in Buddhism: The Definition of Sati
Through analysis of the meaning of sati, we can understand the original Buddhist teachings that influenced our modern mindfulness practice.
Sati refers to sustained attention, that is, holding an object in one’s mind and resisting outside temptations. This correlates to the mindful practice of focusing on present sensations and redirecting the mind when it wanders.
Sati is often combined with sampajanna, which means evaluation and judgment. This seems to contradict the definition of “non-judgmental awareness.”
Sati can also be divided into samma-sati, meaning “right attention”, and miccha-sati, which means “wrong attention”. That is, the Buddha differentiated between good and bad ideas to pay attention to.
- state of mind,
- and thoughts.
Body: The Buddha teaches meditation focusing on the breath. Paying attention to bodily senses, and being mindful during daily activities is also important to the practice of mindfulness. The combination of mindful meditation and mindfulness in daily activities strengthens your attention.
Emotion: The Buddha taught us to explore and be mindful of the underlying moods and emotions associated with events and objects.
State of mind: Buddhism lists 5 hindrances, negative states of mind, which should be watched for and removed when found. In order to avoid their arising in the future, one must explore what leads to its arising. The 7 factors of enlightenment are states of mind deemed good and are to be cultivated and strengthened.
Thoughts: The Buddhist practice involves exploring what makes up you: your body, perceptions, feelings, action tendencies, and consciousness.
What are the Benefits of Mindfulness?
Mindfulness research has exploded in recent decades along with advances in brain imaging technology. These are some of the benefits researchers have found in those who practice mindfulness.
Mental Health Benefits of a Mindfulness Practice
Practicing mindfulness improves the quality of attention, by improving one’s stability, control, and efficacy. It has been found to boost empathy and compassion, which can positively influence interpersonal behavior and may help with job-related burnout suffered by healthcare practitioners.
A mindfulness practice can help those suffering from some mental health problems. It’s been found helpful for preventing relapse from depression and the treatment of anxiety and PTSD. Studies have found evidence that it could even be comparable to the effects of antidepressants in treating depression.
Physical Health Benefits of a Mindfulness Practice
MBSR has been used to help sufferers of chronic pain reduce symptoms and has been found effective for treating insomnia. Practicing mindfulness may also boost the immune system and the brain.
Additionally, since mindfulness can reduce the intensity and duration of stress, it prevents many of the negative effects of long-term stress on the mind and body.
How Does Mindfulness Work?
The scientific study of how mindfulness works on the brain is still developing, but there are some possible ideas:
One idea is that by practicing mindfulness, you strengthen the ability to pull away from negative thought patterns and focus on better ones. This eliminates stress from ruminating over problems and can also help you make healthier choices in reaction to situations.
With advances in technology, neuroscientists are able to look at the brain of long-term meditators, and also compare the brains of patients before and after starting a mindfulness practice.
Studies have found evidence of growth in the gray matter of brain areas associated with attentional regulation, working memory, affective regulation, and impulsivity. Other studies have found decreased activity in the amygdala (emotions) and increased activity in the prefrontal cortex.
How to Practice Mindfulness
Now that we know all the great benefits of mindfulness, how do we incorporate it into our lives as a practice? A combination of formal and informal exercises, using techniques that work best for you, will form the basis of your mindfulness practice.
Formal Practice: Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness meditation is probably the best-known way to practice mindfulness. And sitting meditation is the most commonly seen way to meditate. However, meditation does not need to be seated.
You can do standing, walking, or moving meditation. You can do a seated meditation in a chair instead of on the floor. You can even meditate lying down (although it’s a quick way to put yourself to sleep).
When you’re meditating for the first couple of times, it may be helpful to do a guided meditation. This is as simple as listening to a recorded guide while you meditate.
Another type of meditation is Loving-Kindness Meditation. It’s believed to increase empathy and compassion. Also, it’s super wholesome and will leave you feeling warm and fuzzy.
By trying different ways of meditating, you can be sure to find the one that works best for you.
Informal Practice: Mindfulness Breaks
It can be hard to find the time and space to meditate, especially when out or intense situations. This is where these mini mindfulness-breaks come in handy.
Informal mindfulness practices are often meant to be done in a shorter period of time and can be done anywhere. Some are meant to be done during certain activities, while others can be done as a way of centering and focusing your mind.
Informal mindfulness practices include:
The benefits of mindfulness speak for themselves, but starting a daily mindfulness practice is quite easy. So try out some of the techniques, and see what works for you!
Let me know what your mindfulness practice looks like by sending me an email or a DM on Instagram. And if you want to learn more about wellness, subscribe to my email list to be the first to know what’s new.