WHAT EXACTLY IS MINDFULNESS? And why should I practice it?
Part 1 of a 2-Part Series
OK, I admit it. A few years back when I started out on this yoga and meditation journey, I had to google the word “mindfulness” to see exactly what it meant.
I’m pretty smart, I read a lot, but the term “mindfulness” meant nothing more to me at that time than “doing something in a particularly attentive manner”. Which is true, in a sense. But then I was seeing “mindfulness” all over the media. It seemed like not a day would go by without some article about mindfulness and meditation, featured in magazines like Fortune, Forbes, Vogue, The New York Times and Huffington Post, even on the cover of Time magazine. By now, with all the media coverage, we know that mindfulness has gone mainstream. The world is buzzing more and more about mindfulness.
I’ve learned a lot about mindfulness since that first google search.
And I’ve practiced, again and again. I discovered that mindfulness practices give you the ability to notice so much more about yourself, your body, and the world around you. For me, simple things were profound. Better awareness of my posture helped me to heal painful neck and shoulders with simple adjustments. I began to develop a sort of bionic sense of smell and hearing, constantly looking for the source of humming sounds, like I was finally tuning into the world around me. Cooking became a whole new experience, the movements of chopping and stirring, the variety of tastes/textures/colours I could create turned cooking into a pleasurable, relaxing and creative activity.
And in a larger scope, mindfulness practices have transformed the way I perceive things and the way I deal with the challenges that come my way, they have unleashed my creativity and given me a much deeper sense of self-confidence, of purpose, and they have helped me to find more serenity and happiness in my life.
So what exactly is mindfulness, where did it come from?
Mindfulness is a practice rooted in the ancient Buddhist philosophy. About 2500 years ago, the Buddha endeavoured to make wisdom grow out of his personal spiritual experience. He spoke of four foundations of mindfulness (from the word "sati" in the ancient Pali language): mindfulness of the body, mindfulness of feelings, mindfulness of emotions, mindfulness of the objects of the mind (thinking and observing). The purpose of mindfulness was to helping people cultivate an observation and understanding of themselves and of the world in which they live, with the ultimate goal of attaining enlightenment. In very SIMPLE TERMS, mindfulness is bringing attention to this moment in time, deliberately, and without judging the experience. This involves acceptance, meaning we pay attention to our thoughts, feelings and experiences without believing they are right or wrong, good or bad. They just ARE.
Mindfulness is a capacity that can be cultivated. And we certainly don’t need to be Buddhist to practice mindfulness. It requires some training and a great deal of practice, but it requires no understanding of Buddhism or any particular religious or spiritual belief.
For those of us living in modern societies, we could say that mindfulness is a tool to train your mind, allowing you to access insights, creativity, compassion, kindness. It's a technique for self-development that is not bound to any tradition, a tool we can all use to live a better quality of life as individuals and communities, to find more joy, peace, resilience, confidence and to relieve stress. We can do that by living with greater awareness, by noticing our thoughts and feelings without judging them as good or bad, by noticing the details of life around us rather than creating to-do lists, worrying about past experiences or fretting about the future. And by truly living with awareness, moment to moment, it is possible to rediscover a sense of peace, enjoyment, happiness.
It takes practice to be able to do this.
What does mindfulness have to do with meditation?
While there are many ways to practice mindfulness, meditation is considered to be the essential practice and means to achieving it. Originally, the Buddha introduced a particular meditation technique called vipassana as a way to experience uninterrupted mindfulness. It is essentially a disciplined way of observing your thoughts, reactions, sensations and experiences. Vipassana meditation is also called insight meditation or mindfulness meditation. It may sound complicated, but it really isn't difficult. Simple mindfulness meditation techniques involve focusing your attention on an "object", such as your breath. When you are focusing on your breath as it flows in and out of your nostrils, or focusing on the movement of the belly as it expands and contracts when you inhale and exhale, you are cultivating better awareness of what is happening in the present moment, without ruminating on the past or worrying about the future. In mindfulness meditation, you bring your attention to that object (your breath), noticing it without creating any narrative around it, and without judging it. You just let it be. If you mind wanders, and it certainly will, you gently bring it back to focus on your breath. This is the practice of mindfulness meditation.
Why should I practice meditation and mindfulness?
Just over 30 years ago Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts medical school, had the inspiration to bring mindfulness into the secular world as a therapy to help people to manage and heal issues such as anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and other stress-based illnesses or conditions. Based on the Buddhist practice of mindfulness, he developed Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a therapeutic approach which avoids any talk of spirituality and uses meditation and other mindfulness techniques in a very pragmatic, therapeutic manner. His program has set the foundation for many mindfulness based interventions in therapeutic and non-therapeutic contexts.
So if it works in extreme cases of anxiety, depression and chronic pain, just think how it can help you in your daily life to combat the effects of stress on your body, to be healthier, and to help you to find more balance and joy, more energy and creativity.
How does meditation work on the brain?
It comes down to our two nervous systems, the sympathetic (fight/flight) system and the para-sympathetic (rest/restore) system. One of the greatest dangers in our lives today is stress in all its forms. Our bodies react to stress by stimulating our sympathetic nervous system, releasing cortisone and adrenaline, triggering our “fight or flight” response: we become hyper alert, muscles become tense, blood pressure rises, our perception narrows, memory fails and learning becomes difficult. Constant exposure to stress can cause many health issues, psychological issues, relationship issues. We can counteract the effects of stress with meditation and meditative activities which stimulate our para-sympathetic nervous system and help the brain to release dopamine, serotonin, endorphins and melatonin. This encourages relaxation and healing, reverses the effects of stress, rebalances the nervous system by reducing the sympathetic activity. Meditation decreases the activity of the amygdala, the area of the brain responsible for the fight or flight response.
What are the scientifically proven benefits of mindfulness practices?
Once mindfulness and meditation began to be used in therapeutic settings, scientific studies were done to study the effects of these practices, learn more about how they can physiologically affect the body, and to validate the benefits.
To date, there have been hundreds and hundreds of scientific studies that they have illustrated the functioning, the effects and benefits of mindfulness practices. The list of the physical and mental health benefits of mindfulness and meditation is impressive:
Wouldn't you want all these wonderful benefits for yourself? Begin a mindfulness practice today!
How do I practice mindfulness?
Mindfulness can be learned. You just have to remember to do it!
There are many mindfulness practices you can try such as mindfulness meditation, mindful eating, mindful movement. And there are little mind hacks you can use to be more present, more aware, every day. The practices and tips are the topic of Part 2 of this 2 part series, "What exactly is mindfulness? And how do I practice it everyday?" - CLICK HERE to access the post.
It's all about just doing it, so that mindfulness becomes automatic, instinctive. The most important thing I can tell you is ... start now! You’ve only got one life to live. Don’t let another day go by without noticing every part of your experience, instead of being lost in your thoughts of the past or your plans for the future. I guess it all comes back to that age-old saying - “stop and smell the roses”. That’s exactly what mindfulness is all about: taking the time to slow down and actually seeing all aspects of the beautiful rose instead of rushing by without even noticing it.
These easy to read books will introduce you more fully to mindfulness.
Full Catastrophe Living - Jon Kabat-Zinn (explains the basis of his Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program, the science behind it, and how you can make these practices part of your own life)
Wherever You Go There You Are - Jon Kabat-Zinn (clearly written and practical, it shares many ideas and techniques to help you bring mindfulness into your daily life)
Mindfulness in Plain English - Bhante Gunaranatana (a classic, this really helps to clarify mindfulness)
The Miracle of Mindfulness - Thich Nhat Hanh (another classic, full of wisdom and practical advice about how to practice mindfulness and take hold of your consciousness every moment of the day so that you can really be liv- ing in the present moment)
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