Mindfulness methods can be traced back to the yoga traditions of Hinduism. Buddha refined its practice some 2,600 years ago as part of a spiritual discipline leading to enlightenment, where the mind is free of suffering and in a state of complete wisdom and compassion. Mindfulness is the main element in Vipassana or Insight and Zen meditation practices.
Mindfulness now is most commonly known as a term for a mind-body medicine practice, which was first popularized by Jon Kabat-Zinn. He convinced the western medical establishment that the Buddhist meditation and yoga techniques he practiced were worthy of medical trials. He wanted to establish whether he could help people with chronic pain, by changing the way they felt about their pain. The mindfulness approach was secularized in order to make it accessible for the mainstream, taking out any religious, spiritual or New Age elements. Thus, mindfulness crossed over into western medicine and has been used to help a wide range of physical and mental health conditions.
So it is pretty much the same old story (Dao, Zen, Enlightenment) in a modern interpretation. Probably twenty years ago, a person interested in mindfulness was more likely to find a Buddhist-based offering than a secular mindfulness program. Nowadays, the reverse is true. The fact that this secular approach to mindfulness does not incorporate any cultural or doctrinal elements, spiritual brand or religion makes it easy accessible to everyone.
One of the first and most popular of these secular offerings is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Scientists have found that practicing mindfulness is associated with changes in the structure and function of the brain as well as changes in our body’s response to stress, suggesting that this practice has important impacts on our physical and emotional health.
While most people seem to think that mindfulness is a good thing, many people are confused about what exactly mindfulness is?
One official definition of mindfulness: “Mindfulness is the self-regulation of attention with an attitude of curiosity, openness, and acceptance.”
According to Jon Kabat-Zinns’ teachings, mindfulness is an internal resource that all of us already have within us. The idea is to channel or direct this resource to transform our relationships with stress, emotions, pain, and illness and to deal with our reactivity to our emotional provocations in ways that promotes greater conscious control over our temporary sensations. “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” Jon Kabat- Zinn
“I don’t think there is any one problem or one solution. It is really more about being open to what your moment by moment experience is, which is the definition of mindfulness. When you look at mindfulness you could really translate mindfulness as transparency. What is happening in your own mind is becoming more transparent to you. ” – Ethan Nichtern
I like to see Mindfulness as the Yin way of meditation. Rather than the classic meditation techniques of concentrating and focusing on one thing forceful in a yang way – trying to control the mind – we just allow what is. We watch it, and watch it change – not identifying ourself with our mind.
In general mindfulness is seen as a non-judgmental awareness in which each thought, feeling, and sensation that arises is acknowledged and accepted as it is. This steady and non-reactive attention is often radically different from the way we normally operate in the world.
There are three key characteristics of mindfulness:
- Intention to cultivate awareness (and return to it again and again)
- Attention to what is occurring in the present moment (simply observing thoughts, feelings, sensations as they arise)
- Attitude that is non-judgmental, accepting, curious, and kind
Simple as it may sound, mindfulness transforms how we relate to events and experiences. It creates a more spacious way of being in the world that is less reactive and generally happier.
Mindfulness is different from our default mode. Developing a steady and non-reactive attention is often radically different from the way we are in the world. Many of us spend large parts of our lives on auto pilot, not aware of what we are experiencing, missing out on all the sights and sounds and smells and connections and joys we could appreciate. Some of that time our minds seem “switched off,” and other times caught in thoughts from the past (often regrets) or plans for the future, much of which is repetitive. When we do notice something in the present, our habit is often to judge instantly and react quickly, often working from a faulty or limited perspective that restricts our options or creates issues. Mindfulness helps us be present in our lives and gives us some control over our reactions and repetitive thought patterns. It helps us pause, get a clearer picture of a situation, and respond more skillfully.
Compare your default mode with a mindful state.
Consider how you react when you don’t think you are good at something: say solving brain teasers. When you are presented with a brain teaser, what do you do? Do you tell yourself, “I am not good at this,” or “I am going to look stupid”? Does this distract you from paying attention to working on the puzzle?
How it might be different if you had an open attitude with no concern or judgment about performance, just a curiosity about how working on the brain teaser might be? What if you directly experienced the process as it unfolded—the challenges, anxieties, insights, accomplishments—acknowledging each thought or feeling and accepting it without needing to figure it out or explore it further.
If you do this with some regularity, you start to see the habitual patterns that lead you to react automatically in negative or unhelpful ways and create stress. By observing instead of reacting, you develop a broader perspective and can choose a more effective response.
The practice of mindfulness helps to strengthen the mind so that we experience increasing presence in our lives. Instead of abandoning ourselves when we encounter difficulty, we are fully awake. Mindfulness also strengthens and re-programs the nervous system so that we experience a lesser degree of struggle during physical, mental, or emotional challenge. We train the mind to reduce resistance and contraction when events don’t go according to our plan.
Mindfulness is the practice of directing your mind by cultivating the power of your attention. In other words, we are working and strengthening the muscle of awareness through sustaining a focus. Through this training of mindfulness we actually condition the mind to be more mindful.