What is mindfulness? It is simply paying attention to the present, experiencing life moment by moment without getting caught up in the activity of the mind. One research article described mindfulness as “a moment to moment awareness of one’s experience without judgment.” Mindfulness is the province of the observing or reflective self, the part of the mind that witnesses the thoughts, feelings, sensations and memories that the mind produces.
Mindfulness is a concept that has been associated with Buddhist meditation for centuries but in recent years mindfulness has also been a focus for psychotherapists and researchers in the West. Research shows that the practice of mindfulness is associated with stress reduction, increased focus, memory improvement, cognitive flexibility, decreased rumination, lowered emotional reactivity, and increased relationship satisfaction. Mindfulness also has physical health benefits such as lowered blood pressure, increased immune and hormonal functioning, and better sleep.
The natural tendency of the mind is to think, to wander from one topic to another constantly. Most of the time, we are not even aware of being completely caught up in our minds, until we realize that we have arrived home with no memory of driving there or that we have a read a page of a book with no idea what we just read. This usual state of affairs could be called “mindlessness”.
Developing mindfulness is the process of focusing attention, of returning the attention again and again to the present moment. For instance, an easy and common way to begin the practice of mindfulness is to focus your attention on the breath. Sit in a comfortable position and simply watch the breath flow in and out.
Sounds easy, right? But what happens? You watch two or three or four breaths and the next thing you know you are thinking about the tasks that need to be done, what someone said to you yesterday or the vacation you’re going to take this summer. When you realize you’ve lost track of the breath, you might get upset with yourself and berate yourself for not being able to concentrate for even a few minutes.
In mindfulness meditation, when the mind goes off in all these directions, as soon as you realize you’ve lost track of the breath, you notice what you were thinking of and gently return your attention to the breath. You refrain from making a judgment about the fact that your mind wandered off and just go back to watching the breath – over and over and over again. The process of just observing and noticing what happens in the mind rather than getting involved in it, is mindfulness.
Cultivating mindfulness allows you to develop a different relationship with your own mind. It is not a matter of “turning off” the mind but of getting perspective on what happens in the mind and in your life. Mindfulness develops the ability to observe rather than react. It allows you gain some mastery over your thoughts rather than letting your thoughts control you. Mindfulness allows you to better tolerate uncomfortable thoughts and feelings and handle them more successfully.
Nancy R. Soro, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist