What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is about paying attention to our here and now experience with an attitude of curiosity and non-judgement. Mindfulness has received extensive attention in the research and has been found to be effective in the treatment of many psychiatric conditions including depression, anxiety, chronic pain and addiction. However, the benefits of mindfulness have been recognised beyond the world of psychiatry. Places of education, the corporate sector, businesses such as Google and even the military are now encouraging the practice of mindfulness. This growth in the popularity of mindfulness has occurred due to the increasing evidence that mindfulness, when practiced regularly, helps improve people’s resilience to stress, concentration, learning, and memory, among many other benefits. What’s even more fascinating is that these benefits have been found to be the result of changes in the structures of the brain responsible for these functions.
Neuroimaging research has shown that regular mindfulness practice leads to growth in the parts of the brain responsible for learning, memory, emotion regulation, executive decision-making and perspective-taking. In addition, the amygdala which is our brain’s ‘fight or flight’ centre and is responsible for emotions such as fear and anxiety, shrinks in size following regular mindfulness practice. Together these changes can also lead to reduced emotional reactivity and improved concentration and attention.
While mindfulness may seem relatively new, it has been practiced by people for over 2000 years, predominantly in the eastern world. Mindfulness is not a practice of religion but it has been inspired by Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam traditions. Jon Kabat-Zinn who is the founder of the Centre for Mindfulness and a world leader in the use of mindfulness in the management of clinical problems, has often spoken of mindfulness as heartfulness, since in many Asian languages the word for mind and heart is the same. Gentleness, kindness and compassion are intrinsic to the practice of mindfulness, such that the practice is often less about what you are attending to and more about how you are attending.
Meditation is one way of practicing mindfulness, however there are many ways that mindfulness can be integrated into your day to day routine. It begins with a willingness to experiment with noticing and observing your moment to moment experience as it is.
A few tips to get started:
- Daily mindfulness activities
- Choose an activity you do every day (e.g. brushing your teeth, taking a shower, eating, getting dressed, a household chore, etc.) and commit to doing that activity with mindful awareness. Use your 5 senses, focus on each sense for a minute at a time while doing the activity, allow thoughts and feelings to come and go without getting caught up in them, just attend to your sensory experiences while completing the task.
- Mindful walking
- Practice walking with your attention on your 5 senses, gently bringing your attention back to your senses every time your attention wanders.
- Mindful meditation
- Sit in a quite space, with a straight spine, with your eyes closed, and gently direct your attention to your breath. Follow the sensations of the breath at the tip of your nostrils, or in your chest, or your stomach. Allow thoughts to pass by, return to the breath whenever you notice you’re attention has wandered. Start with just 3 minutes per day and gradually increase to 10 minutes or more per day.
TIP – Build acceptance for the fact that your mind will wander, you are being mindful when you notice it has wandered and you bring your attention back to the here and now.
Definitions of Mindfulness
“Mindfulness in its most general sense is about waking up from a life on automatic, and being sensitive to novelty in our everyday experiences. With mindful awareness the flow of energy and information that is our mind enters our conscious attention and we can both appreciate its contents and come to regulate its flow in a new way. Mindful awareness, as we will see, actually involves more than just simply being aware: It involves being aware of aspects of the mind itself. Instead of being on automatic and mindless, mindfulness helps us awaken, and by reflecting on the mind we are enabled to make choices and thus change becomes possible.” (Daniel J. Siegel)
“Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” (Kabat-Zinn).
“The non-judgmental observation of the ongoing stream of internal and external stimuli as they arise.” (Baer)
“Awareness of present experience with acceptance.” (Germer, Segal, Fulton)
Recommended Mindfulness Apps
For further information about mindfulness research
For further information about mindfulness practice
Self help books
Kabat-Zinn, Jon. (1994). Wherever you go there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. New York: Hyperion.
Kabat-Zinn, Jon. (1991). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness. New York: Bantam Books trade paperback.
Williams, M., Teasdale, J., Segal, Z., and Kabat-Zinn, J. (2007). The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness. New York: Guilford Press.
Harris, Russ. (2008). The Happiness Trap: How to stop struggling and start living. Boston, MA: Trumpeter.