What Is Mindfulness, Anyway?


And Breathe  Mindfulness has become such a hot buzzword, that it is used all the time.  People refer to it when they talk about medication, or relaxation, or doing yoga.  Recently, I picked up two magazines totally devoted to “Mindfulness” and neither one of them defined what it meant.  These publications talked about improving sleep, reducing stress, and even faith, but never defined what mindfulness is.  So I thought it was time to do that.

Essentially, Mindfulness is awareness or focus on what you are doing in the present with acceptance and lack of judgment.  It can help us to see things as they are, to focus on something other than ourselves, to be immersed in what is going on at that moment, and thus be able to take purposeful action if we choose.  It is a way to be aware of your thoughts or feelings in a non-judgmental manner.

So what is NOT mindfulness? It is not living life on autopilot, or not paying attention, or rushing through life without an awareness of what is going on. It is not blanking out your mind.   It is not cooking while talking on the cell phone and answering your kid’s questions at the same time.  It is not reading a book while you watch TV as you pedal on your exercise bicycle.  Because in both of these instances, you cannot fully appreciate any of the things you are doing.

So how can being mindful, which sounds pretty simple (but actually does require practice to learn), really help with such things as stress, sleep, relationships, food and all the other things it is purported to improve?  And why is it so often associated with meditation?  Mindful meditation is often the first thing that is taught in a program on mindfulness, during which one focuses on how one breathes, how one’s body feels, and even what one is thinking.  It is a purposeful focus on the body without any judgment about what is good or bad, just feeling each part of the experience without any concern as to the results.

The practice of Mindfulness actually helps us to develop three skills.  The first is focused attention, the ability to be an observer and see things clearly.  The second is often referred to as “open monitoring” which refers to truly being mindful. And the third is the skill of acceptance or loving kindness.  It is this third skill that is often so hard for people.  They may be meditating and at the same time judging how they breathe, the thoughts that come into their mind and other aspects of the experience.  To some extent, this third skill is really the skill of letting go.

While we can all be mindful on occasion, it takes practice to be good at it and to apply it to areas of life other than meditation; thus, it is the practice of meditation that embeds this skill.  Research has shown that there are actual changes in the brain from the formal practice of mindfulness.  Practice can teach us to tolerate unpleasant emotions, to embrace all of our feelings, to train ourselves to pay attention and to develop compassion for ourselves and others.  In other words, mindfulness can have implications for how we function in relationships, how we tolerate our own imperfections, how we manage our emotions, and the joy or pain we get from life.

Mindfulness can be an important component of therapy. If you have questions about how Mindfulness can help you, please call my office at 732-933-1333.