One of the biggest challenges in a busy, fast-paced day is to notice what’s happening at this moment – not on the note to the teacher you forgot to write yesterday, or the presentation you have to make later in the week. This practice of paying attention to each moment of the day is called mindfulness. Mindfulness meditation has its roots in eastern spiritualism (especially Buddhism), but it’s gaining traction in modern society as a way to cultivate calm in an otherwise frantic day. So, what is it, exactly?
Think of it this way: mindfulness meditation focuses your attention on your bodily sensations and thoughts in the present moment, with a generous, accepting attitude. By contrast, examples of a lack of mindfulness would include being preoccupied with worries and fears about the past, anxieties about the future, behaving on “auto-pilot” (like eating mindlessly in front of the TV), all with a resulting sense of mental chaos. This feeling of going in too many directions at once can further your anxiety, and make you frustrated that you’re just not on top of things the way you’d like to be.
What mindfulness meditation can do: Mindfulness meditation is not a magic wand, and it won’t fix a daily schedule designed for super-humans. Since its introduction into western society in the early 1980s, however, by researchers like Jon Kabat-Zinn from the University of Massachusetts Medical School, research on the practice suggests it can have a significant impact on health and longevity -- by reducing stress, depression, anxiety, promoting coping in the face of serious illnesses, alleviating chronic pain, and boosting memory and the ability to learn a new task. Some studies have indicated it may help people lose weight, particularly if they struggle with emotional eating.
Many psychologists have gone on to develop and employ variations of mindfulness practices, including mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT).
In the short-term, mindfulness aims to help people observe moods and thoughts as transient entities, like “black clouds in the sky” to be observed “with friendly curiosity as they drift past”, according to Mark Williams, a clinical psychology professor at the University of Oxford and one of the founders of MBCT. In the long-term, says Williams, mindfulness can deliver changes in levels of happiness and wellbeing that rival anti-depression medication, for example, though the researchers do not recommend practicing meditation in lieu of prescription medication. Still, the practice carries no side effects, can be learned quite easily, and performed just about anywhere.
How to Be More Mindful: Mindfulness meditation can be fostered in a few ways. You can set aside time to practice during a defined period, say, 15-20 minutes twice a day. Shorter sessions of only a few minutes can offer you a brief, portable technique as respite in a hectic schedule.
Mindfulness can also be cultivated in day-to-day activities, by just paying attention to what you’re doing at any given moment (no multi-tasking here!):
- Breathe, and concentrate on the breath
- If you’re cooking or doing other household chores, pay close attention to the sequence of tasks, how they feel, and notice the results
- Take a slow walk and match your breaths with your steps
Practice becoming more mindful, especially with repetitive tasks that you do often. Persistence and patience will help you reap the benefits.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1982). An outpatient program in behavioral medicine for chronic pain patients based on the practice of mindfulness meditation: Theoretical considerations and preliminary results. General Hospital Psychiatry, 4, 33-47.
Mark Williams and Danny Penman. “Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World.” Rodale Press. 2011. Also: Personal correspondence with the author, June 2012.
Meditation: An Introduction. US National Institutes of Health: National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine Public Information Sheet. Accessed June 18, 2012.
Mindfulness Matters: Can Living in the Moment Improve Your Health? US National Institutes of Health Newsletter. January 2012. Accessed June 18, 2012.
Teasdale, John D, Segal, Zindel V.; Williams, J. Mark G.; Ridgeway, Valerie A.; Soulsby, Judith M.; Lau, Mark A. “Prevention of Relapse/Recurrence in Major Depression by Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy.” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology Issue: Volume 68(4), August 2000, p 615–623.