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What Is Mindfulness?

The concepts of mindfulness and mindful meditation are trending today. But what does mindfulness really mean,
and what is the practice? How are mindfulness-based programs helping people, from healthy individuals to those coping with physical and mental challenges? A growing body of research is identifying benefits—improvements in the ability to cope with stress, in emotional and physical health, and even in brain fitness —and discovering some of the mechanisms that may be responsible for these results (Trousselard et al. 2014). To help you evaluate the relevance of mindfulness to your life, let's explore what it is and look at some of the latest thinking on why learning to live with awareness can be a tool for transformation.

Defining Mindfulness and Mindful Practices

Mindfulness is a state of being; mindful meditation is one practice, among others, for developing mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, founder and former director of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and creator of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program, has defined mindfulness as "paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally" (Kabat-Zinn 1994). Kabat-Zinn introduced MBSR into the healthcare setting in 1979 to help people suffering from stress, pain or illness. Mindfulness meditation has roots in contemplative Buddhist traditions, but in MBSR it is practiced in a secular context.

Today, MBSR is one of the best-known contemporary mindfulness programs. It combines mindful meditation and other awareness activities—such as breathing and concentration exercises, and mindful movement—in an 8-week educational program. While mindfulness programs are not for everyone, research shows that it can benefit certain people.

Leading MBSR practitioners further describe mindfulness as a state of being with qualities of awareness and relationship. Awareness is the capacity to be with the human experience as it is, without adding anything extra. In other words, if you have anger or pain, awareness is acknowledging the sensation of pain or anger in your being, without amplifying it with emotions or diminishing it by denying its presence. Awareness does not call for engaging with thoughts about causes or consequences or with memories of similar experiences.

Relationship refers to the fact that awareness occurs in connection to something. For example, awareness is in relation to your body and physical sensations, to your inner emotions and thoughts, and to your external environment. Being in a state of "open awareness" or "choiceless awareness" is relating to all that is within and around you simultaneously without judgment. This state of concentrated awareness is a discipline that requires practice and time to develop.

Leading MBSR teachers define mindfulness as the awareness that becomes available in conditions created by having the intention to pay attention to the present moment with curiosity and without judgment. Judgments arise, but the practice does not indulge them; rather, it encourages observation of judgments in order to learn more about the mind, self and nature of reality.

The purpose of the practice is to alleviate suffering. A key concept is that while mindfulness may be present in activities that help develop it, mindfulness is not those activities; it is an inherent capacity of mind (Brown, Ryan & Creswell 2007).

Body Awareness as a Foundational Practice

The path to mindfulness begins with cultivating sensory awareness of what is happening in the body from moment to moment through body-centered practices like breathing exercises, mindful yoga or walking meditation.

For research purposes, attending to, appraising and responding to body sensations is referred to as interoception. A research review on interoception and its relationship to the benefits of mindfulness identifies several domains in which improvements in body awareness can lead to greater well-being (Farb et al. 2015).

The following list of domains includes specific examples of how heightened mind-body awareness and mindfulness can improve daily life:

  • Sensitivity. Mindfulness practices increase sensitivity for detecting and recognizing subtle physiological changes with more objectivity and less emotionality. For example, a practitioner can learn that stressful situations evoke elevated heart and breathing rates; become able to notice these responses as they begin; and can alter habitual reactions before the responses escalate.
    To apply this concept, imagine you're driving and someone suddenly cuts in front of you. If you're sensitive to physical changes, you may feel your heart racing and chest tightening. With awareness, you can observe these reactions immediately, acknowledge the fear that stimulated them and begin a self-calming practice, preventing the symptoms from escalating into further tension in your body and mind.

  • Nonreactivity. Mindfulness training teaches practitioners to observe emotions and thoughts as transient mental events, rather than as cues to action. With less reactivity, a person can choose how to respond to a situation, rather than acting from habit. So, returning to the traffic example, instead of reacting to the other driver with anger and escalating the situation, you can choose to do deep breathing exercises to restore physical and mental calm, and focus instead on driving safely.
  • Self-regulation. Because mind-body practices foster awareness of physiological arousal—the onset of the fight-or-flight response—in the midst of stressful situations, fear is less likely to become overwhelming; one can reappraise a situation and realize, if it's not an emergency, that no realistic threat to well-being exists. With more objectivity, it is possible to choose an alternative view. For example, in the traffic situation, you can realize objectively that you have no control over other drivers and quickly return to driving with awareness, without engaging with the other driver or becoming involved with fear or anger.
    As another illustration, imagine you have anxiety about public speaking, and through mindfulness training you increase your awareness of anxiety symptoms in your body. Instead of allowing these sensations and feelings to overwhelm you in a speaking situation, you can recognize the arousal, see that the setting is not dangerous, and choose to perceive the task of speaking as an exciting challenge and an opportunity for growth. In this way, you can use arousal energy to create success, instead of amplifying distress. In other words, with awareness you can let the stress response work for you.

  • Presence and agency. With more-precise embodied awareness, a mindfulness practitioner can develop a deeper, more accurate connection with her life. This can build self-confidence. For example, when someone correctly assesses what the body feels and is capable of doing, dysfunctional self-representations lose power. Instead of disassociating with the body and identifying with labels, the person can discern his actual limits and capabilities.
    Consider the self-limiting ideas of someone with pain who believes she cannot walk for more than 10 minutes or lift a particular weight. Instead of focusing on what she can do, she believes in what she cannot do. With present-moment awareness of what she can achieve, she may discover that walking 15 minutes without pain is possible. Moreover, this openness to feeling what she can do in the moment can be empowering and give her more opportunity for growth.
  • Positive experiences. Mindfulness training educates practitioners to pay attention to and appreciate pleasant sensations as well as negative ones. This can gradually undo habitual patterns related to addiction or other issues and can help people experience more feelings of authentic joy. For instance, some addictions may have a source in dissociative practices or turning away from negative experiences. As a practitioner learns instead to turn toward experience and to fully embrace pain, anger and/or fear, he may also be able to fully enjoy happiness, joy and love.
  • Embodied effects. Mindful practices affect physiological systems, and changes at this level can influence cognitive processes. In other words, as the body becomes calmer, the mind calms down too.

Upon review of all the qualities that can emerge simply from improved mind-body awareness (which is only one aspect of mindfulness), you can begin to see some of the transformative potential of mindfulness practices.

Is Mindfulness Practice for You?

In today's culture of distraction, where the average adult attention span is 8 seconds, a practice that develops attention and awareness can help—and may improve productivity and happiness. Just as modern-day living has removed normal physical activity from our lifestyles and requires us to artificially graft "exercise" into our day to promote health, technological devices—phones, radio, television, computers, tablets and watches, acting as channels for messaging, advertising and news to reach us 24 hours a day—may require us to make time for training attention and creating mental stillness. This lifestyle of constant mental stimulation is in contrast to a more natural embodied engagement with the experience directly in front of us. Mindfulness is a human capacity, and the growing mainstream interest in how to develop it, beginning with mind-body awareness activities, may be of particular interest to movement professionals as they inspire individuals to a more embodied way of balanced, healthful living.

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