What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is described as maintaining a moment by moment awareness of our thoughts and feelings, our physical sensations and the environment around us. So often we are caught up in thoughts of things that have happened in the past or things we are planning or have yet to do, that we do not give our attention to what is happening right now in the present moment. 

With mindfulness, we are bringing our attention to the here and now with an attitude of being an objective observer. This means that we are not passing judgement about our current thoughts and feelings or the external environment or situation. This aspect of mindfulness is more challenging than it sounds. 

Mindfulness originated with Buddhist meditation, but modern, non-religious mindfulness used as a tool to combat stress and anxiety has become increasingly popular since the 1980s. It gained attention with the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn and his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, which was launched at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979. His findings and the benefits of using mindfulness to treat stress have been supported and backed up by countless studies since that time.

What is the mindfulness technique?

Basically, the technique is as simple as bringing your attention to the present moment. Sounds simple but it is not that easy to maintain. There are several different techniques you can use to achieve mindfulness.

One method is to bring your attention to your breath and to concentrate on the sensations in the body while you breathe in and out. It isn’t about controlling the breath or trying to change the rhythm, but just to notice it and pay attention to it.

Another method is to bring your attention to your body and do a mental body scan. You might start by noticing your feet and how they are feeling, then slowly moving your attention up your body taking note of any sensations you are feeling. The idea is just to notice and not to make a judgement about any aches and pains or other sensations you may be experiencing.

Other methods are when you concentrate on one particular thing like the sounds around you, or the sights you see. You may just want to take note of your current thoughts and the feelings that they bring up in your body. This practice can give you insight into your thoughts and can uncover limiting beliefs that you may have about yourself or your situation. It can also bring your internal dialogue to your attention and you can notice if you are being negative or thinking unkind thoughts about yourself or others. 

Jon Kabat-Zinn famously describes an exercise where you mindfully taste a raisin. Taking careful note of all the tastes and sensations as you mindfully eat it. This, of course, can be applied to any food or meal and is a recommended tactic to prevent overeating. 

Mindfulness is a big part of yoga practise when the attention is brought to the body and the breath while moving through a range of poses. In my experience of yoga, this works as you really don’t have the headspace to think much about anything else than achieving the poses and holding them correctly. 

Like in yoga, mindfulness can be brought to any activity where your focus is on doing the activity itself. Like walking or running. Although, personally I find these types of movements to be automatic and my mind wanders easily. It is a real discipline to maintain mindfulness in these cases. But maybe that just means I should practice it more.

How do you practice mindfulness?

As described above, you can practice mindfulness in a multitude of ways. One of the easiest ways to start would probably be with a static meditation where you just sit quietly and focus on your breathing for a short time or do a mental body scan. 

Try sitting comfortably in a straight-backed chair, or if you really want to get into it, cross-legged on the floor or on a cushion. 

Close your eyes and bring your attention to your breath. Breathe through your nose if possible.  Notice the sensation of the cool air entering your nostrils. Notice and feel your belly and chest expand with each breath. Then notice the sensation of the air, now warmed by your body, being exhaled through your nostrils. 

You may find as you do this practice that your mind will wander to other things. That’s its job so don’t be judgemental. Yogis refer to this as the chatter of the monkey mind. Just gently bring your attention back to your breath and the sensations in your body.

A body scan mindfulness meditation moves your attention to different parts of the body instead of just focusing on the breath. Start by getting comfortable either sitting straight or laying down. Then bring your focus to either your feet or to the very top of your head. Notice how the skin feels. What is touching your skin? How does the head or how do the feet feel? Are they cool or warm? Are they resting on a surface? Then, slowly, scan your body moving either up or down pausing to consider how each part of you feels. Again, if your thoughts wander, just gently bring them back to your body and continue where you left off. 

Sometimes just sitting with your thoughts about a subject can be really interesting. Just sit and notice what your internal voice is saying about whatever topic comes to mind. What feelings or emotion are those thoughts generating in you? Where in your body do you feel this emotion? Do this without judging whether or not your thoughts or feelings are good or bad. Just notice what they are. Are you being critical or negative? If so, why? What opinions or beliefs do you have that are creating this judgement? Noticing these things about yourself can really be really helpful in changing negative thought patterns and recognising when our thoughts are looping in destructive ways. Noticing is the first step towards changing and turning these thought patterns around.

What are the benefits of mindfulness?

There has been a myriad of studies done testing how mindfulness-based treatments have positively affected a range of health problems such as depression, anxiety disorder, ADHD, insomnia, addiction and substance abuse, eating disorders and chronic pain. Studies have tested the results for different types of patients from children, adolescents and adults from all walks of life.

Mindfulness practice has also been shown to help alleviate symptoms and increase coping skills for patients dealing with chronic illnesses. Mindfulness has even been shown in brain scan studies to reduce pain in patients by up to 50%. That is incredibly significant.

Recent research also suggests that the practice of mindfulness could influence genetic expression leading to a reduced risk of inflammation-related diseases including allergy, asthma, autoimmune diseases, coeliac disease, irritable bowel syndrome and hepatitis. What this means is that through mindfulness practice we can avoid the onset of diseases that we may be genetically predisposed to. Again, this is incredibly significant for all of us.

“We found that getting as little as 12 minutes of meditation practice a day helped the Marines to keep their attention and working memory — that is, the added ability to pay attention over time — stable.”

Dr Amishi Jha

The benefits have been found to be so profound that US Marines are trained in mindfulness practices to develop mental resilience under the stress of combat conditions. Dr Amishi Jha, a psychologist working to train Marines is quoted as saying, “We found that getting as little as 12 minutes of meditation practice a day helped the Marines to keep their attention and working memory — that is, the added ability to pay attention over time — stable.”

In addition to mindfulness, US Marines are also trained in box breathing, a technique used to calm the mind and body in stressful situations. You can read more about it in a previous post.

How long should you practice being mindful to get the benefits?

The benefits of mindfulness are increased by practising for longer and more often. The more you do the greater the effect and benefits. To begin with, you may find that it takes up to 20 minutes or more just to calm the mind and relax into the practice. Jon Kabat-Zinn recommends 45 minutes of meditation at least six days a week. But you can definitely still experience benefits by practising any of the techniques for a shorter period of time and less often as shown by the US Marines. Benefits are evident with as little as 12 minutes a day. 

It doesn’t matter what type of mindfulness practise you choose to start with. Even just taking a moment to savour a bite of food or a swallow of juice is practising mindfulness. Whatever it is, your practice may only be for a few minutes at a time, especially to begin with, but even so, you will reap the benefits as mindfulness creates more mindfulness.

How does mindfulness increase happiness?

Happiness can be increased by the practice of mindfulness in more than a just couple of ways. 

Mindfulness teaches us that we are not our thoughts and we are not limited by our sometimes mistaken beliefs. It teaches us that we don’t have to act based on our thoughts or how we feel. 

“Your ability to recognize what your mind is engaging with, and control that, is really a core strength. For some people who begin mindfulness training, it’s the first time in their life where they realize that a thought or emotion is not their only reality, that they have the ability to stay focused on something else, for instance, their breathing, and let that emotion or thought just pass by.”

Peter Malinowski – Psychologist and neuroscientist

Peter Malinowski, a psychologist and neuroscientist and Liverpool John Moors University in England says, “Your ability to recognize what your mind is engaging with, and control that, is really a core strength. For some people who begin mindfulness training, it’s the first time in their life where they realize that a thought or emotion is not their only reality, that they have the ability to stay focused on something else, for instance, their breathing, and let that emotion or thought just pass by.”

Why is this important? Knowing that we are not bound by our thoughts and feelings empowers us with the knowledge that we can change our thoughts and beliefs and changing these, changes how we feel. This is the basis of The Think, Feel, Act Cycle that I have introduced in a previous post. 

As previously mentioned, mindfulness can help us to recognise when we are ruminating or looping on negative thoughts. When we recognise these destructive thought patterns we can change them. Preventing and actively changing negative thoughts directly improves our mental well-being and increases our feelings of happiness.

Mindfulness also allows us to experience and savour the pleasures of life as they happen. We learn through mindfulness to notice the beauty and wonder around us and not to take so much for granted. This fosters an attitude of gratitude which directly increases happiness and general satisfaction with life. 

What is also so good about practising mindfulness is that the more the do it the better you get at it and the more your brain is trained to be more mindful.

Studies have shown that the relationship between feeling good and being mindful found that benefits probably works both ways: feeling good increases mindfulness, and mindfulness increases feeling good.

So, make a point to take notice of the present moment more often. Living in the present moment gives our brain a break from rehashing the past or planning and worrying about the future and allows us to savour and be happy in the here and now. Happy moments strung together give us a happy life.

References and further reading and viewing

Megan Ruffino
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