What is Mindfulness?

15 min
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Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive to or overwhelmed by what’s happening around us. This state of mind can be challenging to reach, particularly in the fast-paced modern world we live in. With the rise in anxiety and stress levels of the 21st century, the need for mindfulness practices has increased. 

When people hear the word “mindfulness”, many think of meditation or yoga 一 but it’s more than this. It is a state of being, and an attitude towards life; in some ways, mindfulness is a lifestyle. It is natural for our thoughts to wander between the past, the present, and the future. But when we spend too much time stuck in the past or anxiously anticipating the future, we miss out on the present, and can become trapped in an unhealthy state of mind.  

In this article, we dive deeper into what mindfulness actually is, along with its roots, how to practice it, the different types of mindfulness practices, and how practicing it can help to improve our life. 

Understanding Mindfulness

Mindfulness is defined as a psychological state of awareness, and a practice that promotes awareness. It also refers to the skill of being aware of the present moment, which individuals can develop through mindfulness practices.

The concept of mindfulness was initially derived from Buddhism. Different synonyms of mindfulness include:

  • Alertness
  • Carefulness
  • Caution
  • Circumspection
  • Concentration

Mindfulness plays a significant role in the field of clinical psychology, with various applications. As such, mindfulness is effective in treating mood disorders. Mindfulness is an umbrella term that refers to any form of practice that can help individuals to live in the present, such as meditation, breathwork, or even small habits people can cultivate in everyday life. 

Mindfulness involves being aware of the present without worrying about the past or the future. Paying more attention to the present moment can actually enhance our moods and relieve stress. Through mindfulness, we can learn to be conscious of our presence, where we are, and what we are thinking and doing.

“Mindfulness means being awake. It means knowing what you are doing.”

Jon Kabat-Zinn

7 Principles of Mindfulness

In mindfulness psychotherapy, there are seven key principles essential to practicing it. Recognizing the following can guide you in achieving better results:

  1. Non-Judgment: It is crucial not to judge others ー or yourself ー when practicing mindfulness, because judgment can quickly shift your awareness to the past. But, most importantly, being non-judgmental can also help you pay full attention to the present. Negative judgments remind people of the past. When we constantly make judgments, it will become a habit without us realizing it. This habit is harmful as it can generate feelings of “not being good enough.”
  2. Patience: Being patient is one of the key elements in practicing mindfulness. The benefits will not come to you immediately after you start. Instead, the habit is one that should be developed slowly, with commitment to the routine.  
  3. Beginner’s Mind: Sometimes, our preconceived expectations can alter our perception of the world around us. This can make us falsely assume that what we believe is always true. When trying to be more mindful, individuals should develop a “beginner’s mind” by understanding that what we already think might not necessarily be the truth, and that there is so much to learn and explore.
  4. Trust: It is particularly important to develop trust in yourself and your feelings when practicing mindfulness, because it’s about finding wisdom and peace from within. Therefore, to cultivate more of it, it’s important to find confidence in oneself, while being open to more spiritual or inner learning. 
  5.  Non-Striving: People often “strive for” results because it’s human nature to look for the purpose in everything. However, mindfulness relies on a different mechanism: we practice it without a purpose and a goal in mind. To gain the most from this practice, letting go of our attachment to the results can help us focus on the present.
  6. Acceptance and Acknowledgement: Always believe that you are good enough. If you do not demonstrate unconditional love for yourself, you can remain stuck in a spiral of self-doubt, which can be soul-destroying. Remember, as the famous saying goes, “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” Accept yourself for who you are, what you do, and what you think, as self-acceptance is fundamental for healing and self-growth that is sustainable in the long run.  
  7. Letting Go, Letting Be: When you look back on certain moments in your life that aren’t quite what you wanted them to be, you may, at first, want to let them go by intentionally erasing or blocking them from your memory. However, when practicing mindfulness, we don’t have to reject those parts of our life: instead, we can just observe them, perhaps learn from them, and accept them as part of our past, as we move forward. 

“The Way is not in the sky, the Way is in the heart.”

Buddha

The Origins of Mindfulness

The concept of mindfulness originated from Buddhism around 2,500 years ago. It has also been linked to the Pāli term "sati," which means awareness, attention, and remembrance. Mindfulness is also known as a "moment-to-moment awareness", or an experience without judgment. 

The Buddhist scholar T. W. Rhys Davids first coined the term in 1910. Before he eventually settled on "mindfulness" as a translation of "sati," he had referred to it through an exploration of different words such as "mental activity" or, simply, "thought."

In the modern century, the concept of mindfulness has been brought from East Asia to the Western world. It’s now commonly used in psychotherapy for treating patients with mental health issues. For example, psychotherapists can incorporate these techniques into their treatments for people suffering from depression and anxiety.

A growing body of research shows that mindfulness can also be used in daily life, to help improve overall well-being, as well as protect against the development of potential mental health difficulties. 

“Open the window of your mind. Allow the fresh air, new lights, and new truths to enter.”

Amit Ray

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What are the Benefits of Mindfulness? 

Research suggests that practicing mindfulness allows people to focus on the present moment, and helps them maintain openness, patience, and acceptance. But it also offers a lot more than that:

  • It improves self-regulation behavior: A 2012 study by Sam Himelstein ー a psychologist and author of several books on mindfulness ー and colleagues suggested that mindfulness training can lead to healthier self-regulation behavior. In other words, it can help us better understand and manage our own behavior, emotions, thoughts, and feelings, in relation to things around you. This can be a major boon in achieving one’s long-term goals.
  • It reduces stress: Mindfulness can help reduce stress levels, and it encourages people to live in the present and stop worrying about the future. Mindfulness has also been found to help people maintain calm in high-pressure situations, and reduce the risk of developing mental health issues such as anxiety, burnout, and depression.
  • Mindfulness boosts the immune system: Following a review of recent studies, Dr. David Black and Dr. George Slavich, professors from the University of Southern California and the University of California, concluded that mindfulness also has physical health benefits, and that it can help increase our immune functions. Their research explained that mindfulness training could change the immune system, allowing people to be more resistant to disease. More specifically, mindfulness training could improve the immune system by: 
  1. Reducing inflammation: high inflammation decreased immune functioning 
  2. Increasing CD-4 cells: immune system’s helper cells
  3. Increasing telomerase activity: telomerase deterioration can lead to cancer
  • It increases positive feelings: Alexandre Heeren and Pierre Philippot, researchers at the Université Catholique de Louvain, aimed to investigate the effects of mindfulness on rumination - repetitive thought patterns that make people focus on negative emotions. Their results suggested that mindfulness can effectively reduce maladaptive rumination. Simply put, mindfulness discourages people from engaging in negative thoughts about the past and, as a result, increases positive feelings.
  • It improves interpersonal relationships: Practicing mindfulness enhances people's ability to mindfully relate ー not identifying our own thoughts, opinions, beliefs, judgments, or feelings with the person in front of us, but rather, seeing them as their own, independently of us ー which is a key factor in interpersonal relationships.  This can help people develop better communication skills, and more empathetic understanding. In this way, mindfulness can lead to social benefits that ultimately improve our relationships with others.  

“The best way to capture moments is to pay attention. This is how we cultivate mindfulness.”

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction

One of the most famous psychological intervention methods incorporating mindfulness is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). The technique was initially developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979, as a means of managing stress. 

According to his book Full Catastrophe Living, MBSR is an eight-week program designed to support people suffering from stress, anxiety, and depression. The program involves a diverse range of psychotherapeutic techniques including body awareness, mindfulness meditation, and yoga. It also encourages clients to explore their inner thoughts, feelings, and behavior. MBSR is a group-based program that involves group discussions and exploration, using the facilitation of a certified trainer to help clients learn to integrate mindfulness into daily life. 

Some psychotherapists have expanded the usage of MBSR by applying this method into the treatment of a variety of health issues, including but not limited to:

  • Depression 
  • Anxiety
  • Skin diseases
  • Pain
  • Immune disorders
  • Diabetes

“Much of spiritual life is self-acceptance, maybe all of it.”

Jack Kornfield

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Types of Mindfulness Practices 

Mindfulness is an umbrella term that refers to any form of practice that allows people to fully be in the present. In this way, getting ‘lost’ in a favorite hobby, or being fully immersed in something you love ー such as playing music, writing, or hiking ー could also be considered a form of practicing mindfulness. Here are some of the most popular different types of mindfulness practices:

  • Meditation: Meditation involves users deliberately focusing on the mind for a certain period of time, to develop our awareness of the present moment while achieving an emotionally stable state. There are many different types of meditation, including mindfulness meditation, loving-kindness meditation, transcendental meditation, and yoga meditation, to name just a few.
  • Audio-guided Mindfulness: This practice requires the use of an audio track, typically comprising verbal instruction and relaxing background music, which guides users into the desired state of mind. It’s highly flexible and accessible, as it can be used at almost any time or in any place, through the use of headphones and a listening device.
  • Breathwork: This practice utilizes different breathing techniques ー such as changing the speed of breath ー to take one into a more mindful state, which can be useful in dealing with stressful events. In 2012, research from Dr. Lloyd Lalande ー an Australian psychologist who has developed a clinical model for mindfulness-based breathwork therapy ー and his colleagues suggested that breathwork is particularly effective for treating anxiety and depression.  
  • Sound Healing: Using different sounds to create vibrational frequencies, sound healing can alter a recipient’s brain waves into a more relaxed state一and in turn, elicit stronger awareness of the present moment. These sounds can include the use of certain instruments (such as singing bowls, tuning forks, or gongs), as well as voice, through harmonics, chanting, and rhythm. Research has suggested that music therapy can be a unique and powerful therapeutic tool, as sound carries healing effects that can offer huge psychological benefits. Sound healing techniques are often incorporated into music therapy. 
  • Yoga: With its origins traced to northern India more than 5,000 years ago, since making its way from Eastern culture to the West, yoga is now one of the most popular ways to practice mindfulness across the globe. So much so, in fact, that statistics claim around 300 million people across the globe practice yoga. Over the past five years, the number of yoga practitioners in the United States alone has grown by 50 percent. While many modern adaptations to yogic practices have emerged, they are equally loved for their physical benefits as well as the positive effects it can have on our psychological well-being. This comes as little surprise, considering one of the key pillars of yoga is mindfulness or self-awareness, with the practice being as much about reaching a state of mind as it is the postures or movement. One study that measured participants’ state pre- and post-yoga over a period of 8 weeks, using the Freiburg Mindfulness Inventory (FMI), found that the yoga practitioners were generally more attentive to the present, and had higher levels of mindfulness. Meanwhile, through the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers from Harvard University have found that mindfulness-based meditation may create lasting positive changes in brain function, even for people with depression.  
  • Daily Life Mindfulness Practices: This option involves incorporating mindfulness into the ins-and-outs of everyday life, by including small and simple exercises in your daily routine, in a way that fits your lifestyle. We’ll delve into this more in the next section.

“Mindfulness isn’t difficult, we just need to remember to do it.”

Sharon Salzberg

How Can You Start Living More Mindfully?

The benefits of mindfulness are more readily accessible to us when it’s practiced regularly. One of the simplest ways to cultivate more of it is to incorporate it into your daily life. Below are some exercises that you can use to integrate this into your existing lifestyle:

  • Practice meditation. Listen to a mindfulness track online, or perhaps listen to this audio every night, ideally before you go to sleep. If you find it challenging to stick to a bedtime meditation habit, try to tailor it to your own day-to-day schedule instead.
  • Be mindful of what you eat. Next time you are having a meal, try to eat without getting distracted by your phone, TV, or computer. When you truly taste the food by focusing on what you are eating, you will learn to savor it, live in the moment, and appreciate how it is nourishing you.
  • Exercise regularly. Moving your body is extremely beneficial for relieving stress, as it activates your body to release endorphins: the “happy hormone”, which promotes relaxation and optimism. Exercising can make you more aware of your bodily sensations. Besides cardio exercises like swimming, jogging, and cycling, stretching exercises like yoga can manage stress levels and reduce muscle tension. It works the other way around too: Mindfulness can also help you exercise more efficiently, particularly through strength training, where the increased mind-body connection can not only make us more aware of the muscles we’re focusing on, but also giving us a better sense of orientation to the space around us, and thereby helping us improve our form.
  • Put down the phone. With the advent of modern technology, in our increasingly-connected world, we tend to hold our phones more than we hold conversations. While the internet and social media do have their benefits, when we spend too much time online, we risk losing the same amount of time that could be spent with people we care about in the ‘real world’. Living through a screen prevents us from living in the present moment一so put down the phone more often, and aim to have more intention with how you spend your screen time, by treating your offline time as something of great value.
  • Be aware of the present. For every second you spend thinking about the next moment, you are not embracing the present. If you keep worrying about the future, you will struggle to enjoy the present. Ultimately, as we continue to distract ourselves from the current moment, we  can become more nervous, scared, and worried. Remember, while there is importance in learning from the past and being hopeful for the future, nothing is more valuable than the present because you simply cannot get it back.  

“Live the actual moment. Only this actual moment is life.”

Thích Nhất Hạnh

By bringing more mindfulness into our daily routines, we can become more aware of the present and become more mindful about how we approach life. Once you start living more mindfully, you can enjoy a life that is less drained by the complexities of the ego, and that feels more balanced and enriching as a whole.

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All of the content on our website is thoroughly researched to ensure that the information shared is evidence-based. For more information, please visit the academic journals that influenced this article: Mindfulness Training For Self-Regulation And Stress With Incarcerated Youth: A Pilot Study, Changes In Ruminative Thinking Mediate The Clinical Benefits Of Mindfulness: Preliminary Findings, Mindful Relating: Exploring Mindfulness And Emotion Repertoires In Intimate Relationships, Breathwork: An Additional Treatment Option For Depression And Anxiety?, When Did Coloring Books Become Mindful? Exploring The Effectiveness Of A Novel Method Of Mindfulness-Guided Instructions For Coloring Books To Increase Mindfulness And Decrease Anxiety, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction: A Non-Pharmacological Approach For Chronic Illnesses, Pilot Study Measuring The Impact Of Yoga On The Trait Of Mindfulness, Full Catastrophe Living, Weekly Change In Mindfulness And Perceived Stress In A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program, Mindfulness As A Coping Mechanism For Employment Uncertainty, An Overview Of Sound Healing Practices: Implications For The Profession Of Music Therapy, Mindfulness Meditation And The Immune System: A Systematic Review Of Randomized Controlled Trials

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