What is Mindfulness

What Is Mindfulness? How Does Mindfulness Help Us Seize The Day?

Mindfulness has become quite the buzzword nowadays. Everywhere from offices to schools to hospitals are now offering mindfulness classes. So what is mindfulness and how can it help us in the context of our daily lives? What are the benefits of Mindfulness Practice?

What Is Mindfulness?

Have you ever arrived at a destination only to realize you have no memory at all of how you got there? Or suddenly realize you’ve managed to munch your way through a whole packet of biscuits and can’t remember doing so?

If so, you are not alone. This is a state known as “Autopilot.” When we are on autopilot, we are not aware of what we are doing in the present moment. We’re acting out of habit rather than being consciously focused on the task at hand.

In this way, we may not be present for much of our lives. When we are performing a task on autopilot, our minds wander and daydream. Before we know it we’re planning our next holiday, deciding what to have for dinner, or worrying about the next work meeting.

Our minds become identified with doing something to achieve the end result and we forget to be present and enjoy the journey along the way. As such, according to research conducted by Harvard researcher Matt Killingsworth, the average person is on autopilot 47% of the time.

Matt Killingsworth gives a great talk about mindfulness on TED in this must-watch video:

So what is mindfulness and how can it help us seize the day? Dr. Jon Kabat Zinn, founder of the 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Release (MBSR) program says

“Mindfulness is the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally, to things as they are.”

Moment by moment awareness

The aim then is to be aware moment by moment of our thoughts, feelings, sensations, and the world around us. We drop into the present moment and notice what is happening for us in the here and now. It could be a pain in the body, a feeling of happiness, or a difficult emotion that we become aware of, such as anger.

We are not trying to suppress feelings and push them away but rather we become aware of them and investigate them with an open sense of curiosity. Professor Mark Williams from the Oxford Mindfulness Centre says:

“Mindfulness means paying attention to things as they are in any given moment however they are, rather than as we want them to be.”1

Professor Mark Williams leads a quick and effective meditation you can try here

What Mindfulness is not!

People sometimes say “I can’t meditate. I just can’t seem to stop thinking!” Mindfulness is NOT about stopping thinking and clearing the mind. If we try really hard not to think about bananas, what is the first thing we think of? Bananas!!

Mind’s think. Naturally, that’s what they do. We can cultivate mindfulness to become aware of our thoughts and not caught up in them. If we can see them, we are not in them. Dan Harris from ABC News and author of the New York Times bestseller 10% Happier does a great job of clarifying. He describes it as

“The skill of knowing what’s happening in your head at any given moment without getting carried away by it.”3

In the below inspiring interview with Dan Harris he talks about his story and how he came to mindfulness:

The aim of Mindfulness practice

In mindfulness we are not trying to be “peaceful” or “relaxed,” or go into in a joss stick waving blissful trance. Feelings of peace and relaxation will often happen as a by-product of mindfulness practice but they are NOT the main aim.

Jeff Brantley, MD, a psychiatrist, Buddhist practitioner, and one of the founders of Duke Integrative Medicine says:

“The goal in mindfulness is awareness, not relaxation. People need to stop judging how aware they are by how relaxed they feel, but rather by how closely they notice what’s actually happening.”2

So to seize the day in life we need to become aware of our thoughts, feelings, and emotions. By paying attention to them, we are better able to manage them and there is the possibility of taking them less personally. The mindfulness report 2010 says

“mindful interventions do not encourage people to challenge their thoughts.... rather, mindfulness interventions aim to teach us how to accept our thoughts without unhelpfully identifying with them.”

In mindfulness, thoughts, feelings, and emotions are watched objectively. Here's a meditation you can try “watch your thoughts like clouds in the sky” to experience what it’s like to be the observer of your thoughts.

Where does Mindfulness come from?

We all know that mindfulness is popular in the Western world but how did it start? Its roots are in India and Buddhist meditation. Buddhists believe that the key to awakening is through self-inquiry and self-observation. They practice a type of meditation called Vipassana (“insight”) meditation which involves paying close attention to what is happening in the body and the mind.

To learn more, try this Vipassana meditation led by the venerated Buddhist Monk Bhante Bodhidhamma

Why practice Mindfulness?

We all need a little help to seize the day at times. Mindfulness does just that and ensures that we are operating at peak performance in our lives. There is a huge body of research backed by scientific findings on the benefits. A number of studies indicate that it reduces anxiety, depression, self-hostility, insomnia, and post-traumatic symptoms5. In a trial conducted by Pots W.T., et al6 they found participants who practiced mindfulness experienced “significant reductions in depression, anxiety, and avoidance.” Therefore mindfulness is shown to help with our well-being, it can also help us perform at our best both in work and our personal lives.

Cognitive neuroscientist Dr. David Vago talks more on the benefits for TEDx here

Mindfulness helps to reduce stress

We all feel stress at times. It can be normal, however, it’s how we deal with stress that makes us feel better equipped to seize the day. At its’ worst stress can be debilitating leaving us feeling strung out, irritable and short-fused. Mindfulness can help.

Studies have shown that mindfulness relaxes the nervous system and literally shrinks the brain’s fight or flight center – the amygdala. This is the part of the brain that is responsible for turning on the stress response and making us feel strung out. The Washington Post reports that in one study, researchers found that practicing mindfulness not only reduces the size of the amygdala but also reduces stress levels, leaving us calmer as a result.

The good news doesn’t stop there. Mindfulness is believed to increase the density of grey matter in the brain4. More grey matter means we are better able to focus, have improved memory, and increased learning capacity all of which help to combat stress. Therefore it's suggested that by practicing mindfulness you can give yourself greater thinking power just like building up your muscles in the gym.

Below, neuroscientist, Sara Lazar talks about how mindfulness builds grey matter in the brain for TEDx:

Using Mindfulness to deal with physical pain

Of course, we all suffer from pain from time to time, whether it’s the result of exercise, ill health, accidents, or the natural aging of the body. Mindfulness has been proven to help with all of these. Dr. Jon Kabat Zinn first introduced his 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program for the management of pain in hospitals across America in the 1970s. The program involves gentle yoga and the “body scan,” in which patients are guided to direct their attention to different parts of the body. Try Dr. Jon Kabat Zinn’s guided bodyscan meditation

Further, research has found that Dr. Kabat Zinn’s 8-week course can help patients deal with chronic pain and health problems. It can also help to improve the immune system. Meanwhile, a new study in the Journal of Translational Psychiatry found wound healing and improved immune system functioning evident in groups of people who meditate. Practicing mindfulness then has a range of health benefits, it not only leads to a healthier mind but a healthier body too!

The best diet!!

Good news for dieters out there. Research has shown that mindfulness is shown to work better than diets for long-term weight loss. Mindful eating is the practice of paying attention to what and how we eat. Often we thoughtlessly chomp our way through a meal, indulge and over-eat. With mindful eating, the aim is to become aware of every mouthful. We feel the taste sensations in the mouth, notice as we swallow the food, and observe our cravings for more.

At the Duke University Center for Integrative Medicine in the US, they teach people how to use mindfulness to lose weight. Clinical trials that used their approach discovered that participants who practiced mindful eating had reduced compulsive eating habits and better self-control.

To give it a try have a listen to these meditations by Lynn Rossy Ph.D. from the Center of Mindful Eating.

Self-control

Occasionally, we are all swept away by our emotions. We may get angry after an argument with our spouse, fly off the handle at our children or blame others for our low mood. All too often we get stuck on autopilot and react in unhelpful ways.

Mindfulness improves self control and allows us to change our automatic responses. Moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts and feelings gives us a window of opportunity to reflect before we react to a situation. Being mindful of our responses allows us to regain control over our emotions and act in more constructive ways, leading to greater well-being and happiness in our lives. Find out more about mindfulness and self-control by watching this video by Dr. Miles Neale

Mindful daily life

Of course, we can all benefit from greater self-control, less stress, and being more present in our daily lives. So how can we bring mindfulness into practical, everyday living? All situations in life can become a tool for mindfulness. We can notice how we are reacting in a conversation, bring our attention to how we are feeling or become aware of the environment around us. Ajahn Chah a revered monk in the Thai Forest Buddhist tradition says “Everything is teaching us.”

Thich Nhat Hanh – a monk in the Zen tradition says in The Miracle of Mindfulness “There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes to wash the dishes.” In this way, we can drop into the present moment no matter how mundane the task. Rather than rushing to achieve a final outcome, we bring presence to the journey on the way.

How to get started practising Mindfulness?

Getting started in meditation is easy. A great place to start your first meditation is this quick and simple 3 minute guided practice.

Or you could take a course to get an overview of meditation and how to practice. Many run in the evenings and are structured over 8 weeks. If you don’t want to commit to signing up for a full course, drop-in classes are available in most areas too.

For the brave, you could try total immersion in a 7-day silent meditation retreat which is going to give a great foundation in mindfulness practice.

Give Mindfulness A Go...

So mindfulness is about paying attention to the present moment in a special way. It helps us to maintain healthy bodies and healthy minds, leading us to make the most out of life and seize the day. If you haven’t tried it already, why not give it a go and find out what all the buzz is about?

1The Mindful Way Through Depression Professor Mark Williams 2007
2Thrive Global A Buddhist Psychiatrist Explains Why Meditation Isn’t About Relaxing Gigi Falk 24 July 2017
3Psychology Today Mindfulness: “The power of thinking about your thinking” Christopher Bergland. April 09 2015
4Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain grey matter density. Britta K. Hölzel, James Carmody, Mark Vangel, Christina Congleton, Sita M. Yerramsetti, Tim Gard, and Sara W. Lazara. Psychiatry Res. 2012.
5A randomized controlled trial of mindfulness meditation versus relaxation training: Effects on distress, positive states of mind, rumination, and distraction. Shamini Jain, Shauna L. Shapiro, Summer Swanick, Scott C. Roesch, Paul J. Mills, Iris Bell, Gary E. R. Schwartz. Annals of Behavioural Medicine. February 2007, Volume 33, Pages 11-21.
6The efficacy of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy as a public mental health intervention for adults with mild to moderate depressive symptomatology: a randomized controlled trial. Pots WT, Meulenbeek PA, Veehof MM, Klungers J, Bohlmeijer ET. 2014.
Jenny Birkett
Jenny is a meditation and mindfulness practitioner with wide-ranging experience helping people achieve productivity and happiness through proven techniques.
Photo by cheng feng on Unsplash
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