In recent years, the concept of mindfulness has been a hot topic for not only psychologists, but for anyone from business executives to basketball players alike. Despite its recent surge in interest, mindfulness is not a new concept; it stems from ideas rooted in a variety of Eastern traditions, especially Buddhism. Concepts central to the practice of mindfulness and meditation have been put to use by many in recent years because of the vast number of benefits that have been shown to follow this type of practice. But does it actually mean? First, let’s start with some common misconceptions.
Mindfulness vs. Meditation: Is There a Difference?
Mindfulness is often associated with meditation. We think of “being mindful” and we imagine a dark room with candles and a pillow, crossed legs and gentle new age music. Is this mindfulness? It can be, sure. Meditation is one way in which many people choose to practice a form of mindfulness, but it certainly isn’t the only way. You can practice being mindful while working at the office, while eating at the breakfast table, or while taking a walk outside.
Some people may be hesitant to engage in mindfulness because of its connection with spirituality or religion. Indeed, for many, mindfulness and meditation can involve a spiritual sense of connection. And while it may have roots that can be traced back to religious practices (as well as nonreligious practices), mindfulness is not necessarily a spiritual practice. Rather, mindfulness is a part of the human experience—one that has the capacity to enhance a religious or spiritual practice, or simply to heighten our sense of awareness in our day to day life.
In short, mindfulness is what you make of it. For some, it’s a taking a deep breath before a speech or presentation and reconnecting with themselves before beginning, while for others it can describe a way of being within the world. The New York Times has a running series on mindfulness, entitled “Meditation for Real Life” which offers short, simple guiding prompts for common moments in life that allow for us to practice being mindful in a variety of contexts—whether sitting alone at our desk at work, or even surrounded by others at the dinner table. But what actually is mindfulness?
What is Mindfulness ?
Traditionally, the term mindfulness simply describes a way of attending to the present moment. It involves noticing those things that we might otherwise take for granted—stopping to smell the roses, so to speak. There’s an intentionality to it; by deliberately remaining present, we develop an awareness that captures both internal and external experiences. To practice mindfulness is to strive to notice and appreciate these experiences in the present moment with compassion—not to judge or attempt to change, but to simply notice.
Take a moment to pause what you’re doing. Notice the restless shifting in your seat or the tapping of your leg, and find some stillness instead. Notice your breathing, and take a slow, deep breath for a count of four, holding it briefly, then slowly exhaling for a count of six. Repeat this, paying attention to your breath and noticing the way it feels as you breathe deep into your stomach, and the way that your body relaxes further with each exhale. This is an exercise designed to help us breathe mindfully—taking us off autopilot and increasing our awareness of our breath. Continue this for a minute longer and notice changes to your body or your mood. Most commonly, people report feeling more relaxed, as though the tension were flooding out of their muscles with each prolonged exhale. If this exercise felt good, consider trying it for three minutes, or even five.
What are the Benefits of Mindfulness?
The benefits of mindfulness have been gathering evidence for many years now. Given that this is largely a mental exercise, people are often surprised to hear of its many physical benefits. Better immune functioning, better sleep, and what is perhaps the most obvious benefit, a significant decrease in stress levels; indeed, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) has become a widely used set of techniques that implements mindfulness exercises as a way of decreasing stress and anxiety. Mindfulness and meditation tend to invite a sense of calmness and peace into our experience, in part simply because we are slowing down and remaining present, rather than letting our minds run on a loop or continue worrying about the next thing on our agenda. One of the most powerful aspects of mindfulness is that you don’t need any special equipment, a guru, or a lot of money to practice it. You just need a willingness to ask yourself questions and a quietness to hear the answers.
Many of the benefits of mindfulness are mental and emotional in nature. Awareness and understanding is often the first step in promoting change in just about anything, so improving our awareness of our internal worlds can be a powerful way of effecting change within ourselves. One major misconception about mindfulness is that it requires shutting off or controlling our thoughts. When I talk with my clients about mindfulness, it usually involves some discussion around thoughts, reactions, behaviors, or experiences that are flying under our radar and thus contributing to our feelings of sadness, anxiety, frustration, or other feelings that we might prefer to avoid. In doing so, clients often go on to ask about the point at which they can begin to control or shut off these feelings altogether. And understandably so—to be able to do this could keep us from experiencing the discomfort that accompanies these feelings.
Sometimes we don’t know even what questions to ask at all. In these instances, it can be helpful to seek out the support of a therapist who provide guidance, helping us lead more mindful lives and truly get in touch with our inner selves. All of the therapists at Bergen Counseling Center are trained in mindfulness and can help you develop a personalized plan of mindfulness to incorporate into your daily life.
If you are interested in learning more, fill out the contact form below or call us at (773) 512-4992.
This article is part 1 of a 2 part series on mindfulness. Part 1 defines mindfulness and part 2 will focus on how to practice mindfulness in your daily life. Stay up to date by signing up for our newsletter and get alerts when new content is published.