Without a doubt, mindfulness can make a significant impact on your life. It has been a key focus in many spiritual practices around the globe for thousands of years, but only since the 1990s has mindfulness become a subject of great interest to doctors, psychologists, and others involved in relieving human suffering.
Interest in mindfulness has grown enormously among researchers, educators, physicians, and the general public in the past decade. As a result, mindfulness is now used in diverse settings, including mental health facilities, schools, hospitals, military installations, and corporations.
There is a significant body of scientific research showing the benefits of mindfulness for physical and mental health. Mindfulness can empower us in many ways. Mindfulness-based intervention is now considered an effective strategy for many dealing with diverse mental and physical health issues. Mindfulness is important to helping us enjoy satisfying lives.
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Mindfulness vs. meditation
So what is mindfulness? Sometimes it can seem a little confusing because the terms meditation and mindfulness are often used interchangeably. Mindfulness is deliberately paying full attention to what is happening around you and within you. It is awareness without criticism or judgment.
In meditation, you typically spend a focused amount of time—anywhere from a few minutes to hours or more—turned inward. In contrast, mindfulness is the simple act of paying attention to being present in whatever you're doing. When you are actively mindful, you notice the world around you and become aware of your thoughts and feelings. Unlike meditation, the focus of mindfulness is both inward and outward.
Meditation and mindfulness aren't mutually exclusive: meditation can enhance the practice of mindfulness, and having more mindfulness is one of the goals of meditation.
Jon Zabat-Kimm is largely responsible for the widespread acceptance of mindfulness due to his groundbreaking mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) therapy. He defines it like this:
"Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally, in the service of self-understanding and wisdom."
Why is mindfulness important?
Mindfulness is the single most important habit we need to learn to live our life to the fullest. The human mind is remarkable, but it isn't programmed to bring us happiness. Instead, it is programmed to seek out problems. And it never stops looking for them. The human species survived because of the brain's vigilance in looking for trouble. But when we can't control our minds, we can't be happy, work effectively or positively connect with the people around us.
Our minds, when we allow them to run rampant, go to one of three places:
- The past: It is a wonderful gift to be able to recall the past so we can learn from our mistakes and understand cause and effect. But when left to their own devices, our minds dwell on our past mistakes, bring us feelings of deep regret, and remind us of all the things we have lost.
- The future: Human beings are the only species on earth that can imagine a future, and it's an essential skill that can allow us to plan for events and strive for new goals. But again, the mind has its own agenda. It worries about anything and everything that could go wrong, imagining every potential disaster that could upset our lives.
- A fantasy state: This is where our creativity resides and where we think of new ideas and possibilities. It's a great place until our brain starts using it as an escape from the present moment.
In his groundbreaking book "The Power of Now," Eckhart Tolle describes it best:
"The mind is a superb instrument if used rightly. Used wrongly, however, it becomes very destructive. To put it more accurately, it is not so much that you use your mind wrongly — you usually don't use it at all. It uses you."
The past, future and fantasy state exist only in our minds. They are not real. The only thing we have is this present moment. Unfortunately, we spend almost 50% of our time allowing our bodies to do one thing while our minds are elsewhere. As a result, we aren't present for much of our lives. Lack of presence puts a gap between us and everyone and everything else, resulting in persistent dissatisfaction with our lives. We try other things to fill the void — overspending, using alcohol or drugs, overeating or watching too much television — but there is only one permanent solution: regular mindfulness practice. It will cause much of our dissatisfaction with life to disappear and allow deep joy to appear in its place.
It is essential to realize that our lives exist only in this present moment. Learning to narrow down your life to the present moment is key. When you become deeply aware of the present moment, you have peace.
How to bring mindfulness into your life
Mindfulness is a skill that you can develop, and doing so will change your life for the better. It is a simple process, but mindfulness remains elusive because the subconscious mind has its own agenda.
The three core skills of mindfulness
There are three simple skills that we need to practice to become mindful:
- Focused attention: Consciously choosing what we pay attention to.
- Present moment awareness: Observing whatever is happening at the moment.
- Acceptance: Observing our thoughts and feelings without judging them.
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So how do we do it?
The keys to success in increasing mindfulness are to start small and have a specific goal. If you say to yourself, "I'm going to be more mindful today," or even "I'm going to be mindful for one hour today," it won't work. Remember, your subconscious mind has a different plan that it has been forcing on you for decades.
Instead, try using these steps:
- Begin with one small area of your life – something that you do every day, such as showering, eating, walking to the mailbox, waking up, getting in your car or drinking your morning coffee. It can be anything, as long as it's something that is a daily habit for you.
- Be fully present as you do this activity. Use all of your senses: notice the sounds, smells, physical sensations, tastes and sights. Take in the entire experience as if this were the first time you had ever experienced it. Be aware of what your body feels and what your mind does.
- If you drift away from a mindful state, notice it with full acceptance. Bring yourself back by taking a few deep breaths.
- Repeat this practice every time you do this daily activity for at least a week until it becomes a mindfulness habit fully integrated into your life.
- Choose another daily habit and repeat the process. You will gradually become present for more and more moments of your day. You will begin to experience the peace and joy of living mindfully.
How does mindfulness empower us?
- Mindfulness has been scientifically shown to alter the areas of the brain associated with memory, learning and regulation of emotion. As a result, you'll have reduced stress, more mental clarity, better concentration and increased experiences of peace and happiness.
- It causes the part of your brain that controls awareness, concentration and decision-making to increase its activity. You'll be able to make better decisions, be less reactive and more in control.
- Research has also shown that mindfulness has health benefits, like improving sleep, raising energy, increasing immune function, lowering blood pressure and reducing chronic pain.
- Regular mindfulness practice causes decreased activity in the fight-or-flight part of the brain that can cause us to be impulsive.
- Mindfulness can protect us from age-related cognitive declines in memory, attention and emotional control.
- Mindfulness training can enhance or replace treatment for many mental health conditions, including obsessive-compulsive disorder, borderline personality disorder, drug addiction, anxiety and depression.
- Mindfulness practice trains us to accept life as it is without judgment and to look at things more objectively from a larger perspective.
- It allows us to become more engaged with the world and people around us. The most powerful thing you can do for your loved ones is to be fully present.
Developing a mindfulness practice can enhance our lives by keeping us engaged in the present moment, increasing physical and mental health, and bringing us joy. Too often, we spend time in our minds worrying about the future or regretting the past while letting our life slip away from us. Luckily, mindfulness is a learnable skill.
Start today by taking a small step toward mindfulness and allow it to take root in your life. Then, you will begin to transform your existence into a beautiful masterpiece.
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