It’s not uncommon to see your primary care doctor these days and have her/him prescribe “learning some mindfulness” as a way of decreasing anxiety, reducing stress, or helping with sleep. Indeed, mindfulness and meditation have become hot topics in the last few years in mainstream Western medicine. However, the concept of mindfulness has deep ancient roots and many cultures and religions have practiced some form of mindfulness for thousands of years. Mindfulness as we know it today is not rooted in a religion or spiritual practice (although it certainly can be), but instead is considered a specific approach in helping a person learn to be more present in everyday life. Rather than relying on our ‘auto-pilot’ or pushing away uncomfortable moments, through practicing mindfulness we are able to experience life more fully as it happens. Indeed, mindfulness has been shown to have significant positive effects on mental health, including those listed above, as well as a means of treating recurrent depression, binge eating, addiction, chronic pain, PTSD, and other physical and psychological problems.
Contrary to popular belief, mindfulness is not about achieving an ‘empty mind’ or stopping thoughts that you don’t want to have. To do so would be impossible, even for the most experienced mindfulness experts. Rather than getting rid of our thoughts, mindfulness teaches us how to acknowledge them, and respond differently to them. Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of modern day mindfulness and the creator of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” Each of these components is an important piece of mindfulness. In many ways, learning to be ‘mindful’ is counterintuitive to what society often asks of us. We are inundated with emails, social media, to-do lists, friend and family gatherings, and are expected to be expert multi-taskers in many of our workplaces. We are asked to make quick judgments about things all the time. Learning to be mindful, then, can seem daunting and at times, impossible. However, by cultivating a daily practice of tuning into your body and breath, your thoughts and feelings, and your daily experiences, you can begin to “be an observer” of your experiences, rather than constantly reacting to them. Mindfulness is about learning to respond to life in a calmer and more compassionate manner, to help us make wiser choices, ultimately in order to help us be more fully present with ourselves and those around us.
I’m sure this all sounds great, and you are probably wondering – how do I get started? I recommend first doing your own informed research on mindfulness – there are many resources on the Internet that can be a good starting point. Finding a local MBSR course is also a great way to begin your mindfulness practice within a group setting. Additionally, locating a trained clinician who can teach and equip you with mindfulness skills (MBCT) can help you hone in on specific areas where it may be more difficult to be mindful. Regardless of your approach to mindfulness, remember that cultivating such a mindset takes time and practice -- but it is possible, and there is a growing body of empirical research that points to long-lasting benefits for your physical and mental health.