What is Mindfulness?

From cover stories on Time Magazine to specials on PBS, the word “mindfulness” has been getting a lot of press lately. There are a confusing number of popular media articles which often misrepresent mindfulness, either promising over-hyped results or dismissing effects entirely. So, what is mindfulness, what do we know about it, and how might it be helpful?

Part of the confusion comes from different ways people use the word and what it means to them. Even in the scientific study of the effects of mindfulness, there are a bewildering number of equally correct definitions. None is more right than another, but it’s important that you know how it’s being used.

Mindfulness as Defined by UMASS

Here we’re talking about mindfulness in the way it’s taught at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where mindfulness has been practiced and researched for nearly 40 years. In the late 70’s then-microbiologist Jon Kabat-Zinn noticed how beneficial meditation and yoga were to him in his professional and personal life. They increased his resilience to the difficulties life was throwing his way.. He wanted to see if a program of learning and contemplative practice would be helpful to others in the healthcare system. So he created the Stress Reduction Program to put it to the test. The program was immensely successful, and grew into what is today call Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR, which is the gold standard for the scientific study of mindfulness.

What is meant by mindfulness in this context?  Kabat-Zinn described it thusly,

“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” Seems simple enough, but each aspect of that one definition has some important, and positive, nuances and implications.

First, mindfully attending is on purpose.

Think about something you might do every day without really thinking about it, like getting dressed, eating a sandwich, or even driving someplace. It’s often like running on automatic pilot, there isn’t a lot of intention or conscious awareness involved. Paying attention with intention brings with it a powerful possibility: choosing how the mind is, choosing how to be when remembering to be mindful. Rather than being unaware of what’s happening, this opens the door to connecting with experience every time that choice is made.

Second, mindful practice is in the present moment.  

Much of the time the mind is spent rehashing the past or rehearsing the future, rather than attending to what’s happening right now. Just like Master Yoda says about Luke Skywalker, “Never his mind on where he was, what he was doing,” catching Luke’s mind wandering elsewhere bare moments after being present.  That’s the case for most people, but especially in times of strong or even unexpected emotions. Even getting cut off while driving can capture attention long after, continuing to irritate us and influencing the rest of our day. Greater difficulties – or joys, like being in love – can send us into blissful or hurtful imaginings in favor of just attending to now.

Third, mindfulness is a practice of how to intentionally be present nonjudgmentally.  

This doesn’t mean leaving our brains on a shelf, or surrendering our ability to think, discern, or decide. Quite the opposite. Instead of experiencing something and having either a knee-jerk reaction (“this is bad”) or allowing old habits to call the shots (“I hate broccoli”), mindfulness exercises receiving things as they are, and maybe find they’re not quite as bad as we may have thought. Sure, something may turn out to not to be so good, but we’re not automatically shutting off from possibilities – and broccoli might be better than it was when we were kids.

What Mindfulness Does for Us

Combining these three facets of mindfulness creates some profound possibilities, including shifting our relationship with what happens. Rather than missing out on our lives because of being distracted, mindfulness meditation practices choosing to notice and be part of what’s going on now, instead of practicing restlessness and worry. That shift from doing to being can lighten the burdens of everyday life, as changes in the brain itself can be positively influenced by meditation, impacting a wide variety of medical conditions, too, including reducing the perception of chronic pain.  This isn’t forcing ourselves to be happy, either, or creating any kind of fake impression of how we really feel. Instead and perhaps somewhat surprisingly, engaging more closely with experiences, even the unpleasant ones, can give a measure of resilience.

So, how do you start a mindfulness meditation practice?  Below are a few things to try, and some suggestions for further exploration.

Four Ways to Try Mindfulness

  1. Join a drop-in meditation.  Many centers and local teachers have free sessions to introduce you to the practice, and give it a try without any obligations.  There are also live online opportunities you can do from home with your computer or smart phone, and you get a chance to practice with a group.
  2. Try an app.  There are lots of free apps that have guided meditation recordings, and can let you try meditation on your own schedule, and with a wide selection of meditation practices.
  3. Choose a daily activity, and be present for it.  You don’t have to do a formal meditation with someone guiding.  You can choose something you do every day, like brushing your teeth, or taking a walk, and as best you can choose to be present and experience every moment of it.
  4. Read a book.  Though it’s not practicing mindfulness, you can learn a bit more about it and get some of your questions answered.  Many books also have resources you can check out when you’re ready.

Most importantly, take care of yourself.  Mindfulness is not a cure all. It doesn’t solve all problems, and your well-being is far more important than taking a program at the wrong time.  If you are considering taking a mindfulness program of some kind, be sure the teacher is well trained through a reputable institution. Make sure they ask about your background and what you’re going through in your life.  If they don’t ask, you may want to avoid taking that program. They may not be as concerned for you as they are about their bottom line. Mindfulness can be a wonderful way to make changes in how you’re feeling and managing, even flourishing in your life – so check out programs mindfully, too.

About the Author:

Ted Meissner has been a meditator since the early 90’s, is a UMass Center for Mindfulness Qualified MBSR Teacher, and is the host of the podcast Present Moment: Mindfulness Practice and Science. He has presented about mindfulness to various groups including the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Harvard Humanist Hub, and Be The Match, the National Marrow Donor program. Ted has been published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, Mindful, and The International Journal of Whole Person Care.

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