Mindfulness has become quite the buzz word. The concept has gained attention and traction in a variety of fields, particularly due to the well documented benefits of practicing mindfulness and the very interesting (and cool!) research looking at the brains of long-term meditators and the effects of meditation on brain plasticity[i],[ii],[iii]. In 2014, TIME magazine featured the “Mindful Revolution”[iv] on the cover and has since followed-up with several mindfulness and meditation cover features. Additionally, if you browse the personal development section of the bookstore, you will find mindfulness books about pretty much any topic: Mindful Relationships, Mindful Dog-Walking, Mindful Eating, Mindful Parenting, Mindful Coloring, and on. There is no shortage of information and resources available to learn about mindfulness.
What exactly is mindfulness and what is all the hype? When I ask course participants to share words that come to mind when they hear mindfulness, they typically say: attention, focus, presence, meditation, yoga, acceptance, and so on. All of these words and associations are neither right nor wrong as there is not an all-encompassing definition, however, common definitions share similar components. Mindfulness will look and feel different for each person because your own experiences are exactly that – yours. Nevertheless, I will offer several definitions and ideas that may provide a conceptual framework to start understanding mindfulness elements.
In a basic sense, mindfulness is being aware of what is happening right now in this moment. Ellie Weisbaum[v], PhD Candidate at the University of Toronto and teacher in the Applied Mindfulness and Meditation Certification Program describes mindfulness as “Being aware of what is happening inside you and around you in the present moment.” Mindfulness then is two-tiered and includes an external awareness (i.e., sights, sounds, environment, etc.) and an internal awareness (i.e., sensations in the body, emotions, thoughts etc.).
Taking this further, Jon Kabat-Zinn[vi],[vii] professor at the University of Massachusetts’ Medical School and founder of the world-renowned Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MSBR) program, considers mindfulness to be an “Awareness that merges through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally to the unfolding experiences moment by moment.”[viii] Mindfulness here goes further than an internal and external awareness and involves the intentional act of paying attention and meeting our experiences without judgment.
Furthermore, an adapted definition from Shauna Shapiro[ix], a professor at Santa Clara University, clinical psychologist, and world known mindfulness researcher and expert, includes setting the intention to pay attention and noticing our attitude or stance to whatever is arising. Mindfulness then is purposely paying attention to the present moment, attuning to what you are noticing, and reflecting on your attitude to what you are noticing. For example, are you meeting your experience with judgement? Curiosity? Criticalness? Compassion? A way to explore these three facets includes asking yourself: what am I noticing and how am I meeting this?
These definitions offer a useful starting point to understanding mindfulness, however, truly grasping these concepts comes from practicing mindfulness and intentionally paying attention to your experiences.
Meditation is one way to practice being mindful. There are several meditations available in the Resource section of the website. I recommend starting with the “Mindful Pause” 5-minute meditation. This brief meditation gives a sense of practicing an external and internal awareness, while also learning to focus and support your awareness through the breath and body.
Additionally, you can practice mindfulness in your everyday activities. Choose an activity you do regularly, perhaps on autopilot and without paying too much attention. Ideas might include eating a meal, drinking your morning coffee/tea, brushing your teeth, or washing the dishes – something that is automatic and part of your daily routine. The next time you do this activity, set the intention to pay attention. Slow the activity down and engage with the experience in a deliberate manner as if you are doing this for the first time. For example, if you choose to pay attention to eating food, you can engage via the senses:
- Touch: What does this item feel like? Is it soft, squishy, firm, etc.? What is the shape and contours like?
- Sight: What does this item look like? Where are the shadows and reflections of light? What is the shape?
- Sound: What do I hear?
- Smell: What do I smell?
- Taste: What is the texture? What tastes are happening with one bite? Then the next? Is the taste sweet, bitter, sour?
You can also explore the internal experiences and ask yourself:
- Do I notice any emotion?
- Do I notice any thoughts?
- Did any memories or stories about this activity come to mind?
If you notice that your mind has wandered, this is okay. If you notice that you wanted to finish and rush through the activity, this is okay. If you notice slowing down and paying attention felt awkward or weird, this is also okay. This is all valid information about how you are engaging with this moment. Finally, did anything surprise you? This is the intriguing part about practicing mindfulness and intentional awareness: when we slow down, pause, and pay attention, we may be surprised by the nuanced intricacies that we did not notice before.
I encourage you to try the Mindful Pause meditation and/or practice mindfulness of a daily activity. I would love to hear about your experiences, so feel free to leave a comment and share what you noticed! Furthermore, check out the upcoming courses and webinars to further explore your intention, attention, and attitude to your experiences.
Thank you for interest to learn more about mindfulness. I appreciate you being here. Be well and take good care.
Resources & References
[i] Luders, E., Clark, K., Narr, K. L., & Toga, A. W. (2011). Enhanced brain connectivity in long-term meditation practitioners. NeuroImage, 57(4), 1308-1316. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2011.05.075
[ii] Do-Hyung Kang, Hang Joon Jo, Wi Hoon Jung, Sun Hyung Kim, Ye-Ha Jung, Chi-Hoon Choi, Ul Soon Lee, Seung Chan An, Joon Hwan Jang, Jun Soo Kwon, The effect of meditation on brain structure: cortical thickness mapping and diffusion tensor imaging, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Volume 8, Issue 1, January 2013, Pages 27–33, https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nss056
[iii] Orme-Johnson, D. W., Schneider, R. H., Son, Y. D., Nidich, S., & Cho, Z. H. (2006). Neuroimaging of meditation’s effect on brain reactivity to pain. Neuroreport, 17(12), 1359–1363.