If mindfulness makes you think of cross-legged yoga poses and Zen-like meditation, you aren’t alone; that’s a popular mental picture of what mindfulness is. While mindfulness isn’t synonymous with meditation, there is a connection there when it comes to how mindfulness got popularized in America.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at University of Massachusetts, was the first to popularize the concept of mindfulness in America in the early 90s. He became interested in Eastern philosophy when a Zen missionary came to speak at MIT while Kabat-Zinn was a student there. He studied under several prominent Buddhist teachers, but he wanted to bring their ideas into his work in a way that wasn’t connected to a religious system. So he took certain ideas from his Buddhist studies that he thought could help people even in a secular setting, and those ideas are basically what we think of today as “mindfulness.”
So what actually is mindfulness?
There are a few different ways to think about mindfulness that, when you put them all together, give you a good picture of what it actually is:
- Being present in the present. This means not dwelling on the past, not worrying about the future, and not letting your mind become removed from what it’s thinking about at the moment. This might sound strange; how could your own mind be removed from what it’s thinking about? But if you’ve ever experienced the sensation of “zoning out” and then having someone ask you, “What are you thinking about?” only to realize you have no idea, then you know that maybe this kind of presence isn’t as obvious or as natural as it first sounds.
- Being able to recognize your thoughts and feelings as if from outside yourself. Ellen Hendricksen’s article on mindfulness for Psychology Today gives a great analogy for this, though she acknowledges that she got it from Dr. Kristin Neff: “Picture yourself in a movie theater, she says. A movie is playing on the screen, and you’re wrapped up in the story. You jump when the bad guy appears, bite your nails as the forces battle each other, gasp as plot twists are revealed. But then, in an instant, the person next to you sneezes. The reverie is broken. Suddenly, you are back in your seat with your popcorn, and you remember, ‘Oh, I’m watching a movie.’ This awareness is mindfulness.”
- Observing without judging. As you gain skill at observing your own thoughts and feelings as if from outside yourself, you do so without determining that they are good or bad. The goal is increased awareness of what’s going on inside you, not beating yourself up or patting yourself on the back. So, if you feel scared about something, you’re able to think, “I am having the thought that moving will be scary because I don’t know how to go about it,” rather than thinking, “Why am I being so dumb? Everybody moves; I’m being pathetic.”
So, if you put these things together, maybe you can start to understand how people talk about mindfulness both as something you do and as something you have. You have to practice to cultivate these skills, but once you gain them, they become a sort of way of being, a default way of living that you can apply at any moment.
Why bother with mindfulness?
There’s a good reason that this practice is blowing up in popularity: studies have shown that it links to lots of desirable results. The APA’s webpage on mindfulness mentions all of the following results and more:
- Fewer symptoms of depression (Remember, this is not the same as a complete cure for depression, but is nevertheless an encouraging result.)
- Increased ability to sustain attention (In the smartphone age, how many of us couldn’t use help with this??)
- Reduction of stress
- Increased working memory
- Increased cognitive flexibility (In other words, the ability to mentally try new things)
- Relationship satisfaction (Experts theorize that this is because of better ability to regulate emotions to “experience emotion selectivity,” which reduces conflict.)
How do I get started with practicing mindfulness?
The good news is that mindfulness is so popular right now that there’s no lack of resources for those who are interested in exploring it further. The bad news is there are so many resources that it can be overwhelming. Here are 3 ideas for getting started:
- Before you read any book, sign up for any classes, or download any app, try to make sure your attitude about mindfulness is on track. In Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book on mindfulness, he writes about the importance of approaching mindfulness with the right attitude. He says that a really skeptical attitude doesn’t work because it prevents a person’s mind from openness to the process, but an overly optimistic attitude can also be dangerous because it leads to disappointment when the person doesn’t see huge changes overnight. Instead, he says, “In the Stress Reduction Clinic, we find that those people who come with a skeptical but open-minded attitude do the best. Their attitude is, ‘I don’t know whether this will work or not, I have my doubts, but I am going to give it my best shot and see what happens.’”
- Try out some mindfulness exercises. There are plenty of resources that will share mindfulness exercises with you, including Ellen Hendricksen’s article in Psychology Today that I mentioned above.
- Try one of the many free apps out there that aim to increase mindfulness. This Huffington Post article curates a few user favorites to get you started.
When it comes to trendy psych topics like mindfulness, it can be hard to separate fact from fiction when you’re researching at home. If you’re interested in learning more about mindfulness and how to cultivate it, you can call us at (305) 501-0133 or click here to schedule a free 20-minute Clarity Consult .