This blog post originally appeared on About Meditation.
As a psychologist, I often use elements of mindfulness practice with my clients, and before I do, I talk to them about what mindfulness actually means and how it can help cultivate wellbeing.
In today’s day and age, mindful and mindfulness are buzzwords that are used colloquially. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve been told to “BE MINDFUL.”
Yet, what is mindfulness and what does it really mean?
What Is Mindfulness?
There are many definitions. My favorite is the one posited by John Kabat-Zinn, the pioneer of Mindfulness Meditation’s use in Western psychological interventions. He proposes that mindfulness is “a state of greater awareness cultivated by paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
Part of why I like this definition is because it speaks to the components of mindfulness that are important in cultivating its benefits.
Let’s break this definition down.
When we don’t hone our focus, as Kabat-Zinn says, on purpose, we remain on autopilot. In this busy, hyper-connected world it’s too easy to lose ourselves in autopilot for much of the day….every day. Living this way we often fail to:
- Notice the beauty of life
- Hear what our bodies are telling us and
- Get stuck in mechanical ways of thinking and living that may be harmful to ourselves or others
When we’re in autopilot mode we get lost in ‘doing’ so we find ourselves striving and struggling and ‘getting stuff done’ instead of living.
In contrast, when we are attentive on purpose, we start to live more consciously. We’re more awake and more fully ourselves.
In this age of mass distraction, there is nothing more important. There are so many ways to disconnect and distract ourselves from ourselves. We easily disperse our energy, leaving little or none leftover to nurture ourselves.
In The Present Moment
If left to its own devices, our human mind habitually wanders away from the present moment. When we’re not in the here and now, we dwell in the past, grasping and replaying it, or we project into the future, trying to anticipate the unknown (and often catastrophizing). These habitual thought patterns don’t serve our ultimate well-being.
When we don’t allow ourselves to attend to the present, we:
- Place ourselves at greater risk for depression and anxiety, because we ruminate and regret the past or fantasize about the future.
- Fail to notice what our bodies and minds are telling us at the deepest levels.
We like to hang out in the past, because although sometimes painful, it’s known and comfortable. Or, we hang out in the future, because we think we can control it!
Instead, when we’re mindful, we hone our clarity and focus as we attend to every sensation as it unfolds, engaged and undistracted in the present moment experience. We let go of the tension caused by wanting things to have been or to be different, and instead we accept the present moment as it is.
When practicing mindfulness, we’re not trying to control, suppress, or stop our thoughts. I believe this is the biggest misconception many of us have when delving into practice.
Through mindfulness we don’t want to push our thoughts away. Rather, mindfulness helps us to pay attention to our experiences as they arise without judging or labeling them in any way. This, I think, is the essence of mindfulness.
When we cultivate a state of clarity in which we suspend judgment, we become witnesses and watchers of our present moment experience. Sure, there’s temptation to judge our experience as good or bad. Yet, letting go of judgments helps us to see things as they are rather than through the filters of our patterned and conditioned modes of thinking. This way, we are less likely to mechanically play out old habitual ways of thinking and living.
In the end, mindfulness doesn’t eliminate life’s pressures, but it can help us respond to them in a less reactive, more adaptive and healthy way. It will help us recognize and step away from unconscious emotional and physiological reactions to everyday experiences.
It also provides us with a scientifically researched approach to cultivating clarity, insight, and understanding. Practicing mindfulness allows us to be fully present in our life and work, and improve our quality of life.
Many have found that one of the surest ways to begin to hone clarity and focus is to pay attention to the one thing that is always within us, our breath. By paying attention to the breath we learn to stay present with it. At the same time, we learn to let go of the judgments when our focus is challenged. During this personally curated exercise, I help you become acutely aware of the sensation of diaphragmatic breathing. By breathing fully through your diaphragm, you are creating a relaxed physiological state. By sustaining your attention on the breath, you are training your mind to focus on this sensation as it unfolds in the moment.