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The Art of Mindfulness

Do you hear the chimes in the distance and the wind rustling the leaves of the trees. Do you feel the warmth of the sun on your skin? Can you smell the earthiness of dirt beneath you? Can you truly taste the coffee you are drinking? The bitterness, the nuttiness, the acid, the sweetness and creaminess if you add sweetener and cream?


So, what is mindfulness anyway?

To put it simply, it’s living fully in the moment, not judging yourself or others, just appreciating and experiencing all that is, with all of the senses.

The Greater Good organization says that being mindful “means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens.


Mindfulness also involves acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them—without believing, for instance, that there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel in a given moment. When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future.”


The father of Western mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn also adds, “If you are experiencing a distressing thought or feeling or actual physical pain at any moment. You resist the impulse to react to it by trying to escape the unpleasantness. Instead, you chose to respond and see it clearly as it is. Then accept it because it is already present in this moment.”


Why Practice It?

Studies have shown that practicing mindfulness, even for just a few weeks, can bring a variety of physical, psychological, and social benefits. Here are some of these benefits, which extend across many different settings.


Mindfulness is good for our bodies: A seminal study found that, after just eight weeks of training, practicing mindfulness meditation boosts our immune system’s ability to fight off illness. Practicing mindfulness may also improve sleep quality.

Mindfulness is good for our minds: Several studies have found that mindfulness increases positive emotions while reducing negative emotions and stress. Indeed, at least one study suggests it may be as good as antidepressants in fighting depression and preventing relapse.

Mindfulness changes our brains: Research has found that it increases density of gray matter in brain regions linked to learning, memory, emotion regulation, and empathy.

Mindfulness helps us focus: Studies suggest that mindfulness helps us tune out distractions and improves our memory, attention skills, and decision-making.

Mindfulness fosters compassion and altruism: Research suggests mindfulness training makes us more likely to help someone in need and increases activity in neural networks involved in understanding the suffering of others and regulating emotions. Evidence suggests it might boost self-compassion as well.

Mindfulness enhances relationships: Research suggests mindfulness training makes couples more satisfied with their relationship, makes each partner feel more optimistic and relaxed, and makes them feel more accepting of and closer to one another. Mindful couples may also recover more quickly from conflict.

Mindfulness affects the way we see ourselves: More mindful people have a stronger sense of self and seem to act more in line with their values. They may also have a healthier body image, more secure self-esteem, and more resilience to negative feedback.

Mindfulness makes us more resilient: Some evidence suggests that mindfulness training could help veterans facing post-traumatic stress disorder, police officers, women who suffered child abuse, and caregivers.

Mindfulness is good for business: Mindfulness training could help make leaders more confident, improve creativity, reduce multitasking, and improve client satisfaction.

Mindfulness is good for parents and parents-to-be: Studies suggest it may reduce pregnancy-related anxiety, stress, and depression in expectant parents, and may even reduce the risk of premature births and developmental issues. Parents who practice mindful parenting report less stress, more positive parenting practices, and better relationships with their kids; their kids, in turn, are less susceptible to depression and anxiety, and have better social skills. Mindfulness training for families may lead to less-stressed parents who pay more attention to their kids.

Mindfulness may be beneficial to teens: Practicing mindfulness can help teens reduce stress and depression and increase their self-compassion and happiness. Once teens arrive at college, it could also reduce their binge drinking.

Mindfulness helps schools: There’s scientific evidence that teaching mindfulness in the classroom reduces behavior problems, aggression, and depression among students, and improves their happiness levels, self-regulation, and ability to pay attention. Teachers trained in mindfulness also show lower blood pressure, less negative emotion and symptoms of depression, less distress and urgency, greater compassion and empathy, and more effective teaching.

Mindfulness helps health care professionals cope with stress, connect with their patients, and improve their general quality of life. It also helps mental health professionals by reducing negative emotions and anxiety, and increasing their positive emotions and feelings of self-compassion.

Mindfulness helps prisons: Evidence suggests mindfulness reduces anger, hostility, and mood disturbances among prisoners by increasing their awareness of their thoughts and emotions, helping with their rehabilitation and reintegration.

Mindfulness helps veterans: Studies suggest it can reduce the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the aftermath of war.

Mindfulness fights obesity: Practicing “mindful eating” encourages healthier eating habits, helps people lose weight, and helps them savor the food they do eat. Pregnant women who practice mindful eating gain less weight during pregnancy and have healthier babies.


How Do I Cultivate It?

Jon Kabat-Zinn emphasizes that although mindfulness can be cultivated through formal meditation, that’s not the only way. “It’s not really about sitting in the full lotus, like pretending you’re a statue in a British museum,” he says in this Greater Good video. “It’s about living your life as if it really mattered, moment by moment by moment by moment.”


Here are a few key components of practicing mindfulness that Kabat-Zinn and others identify:

· Pay close attention to your breathing, especially when you’re feeling intense emotions.

· Notice—really notice—what you’re sensing in a given moment, the sights, sounds, and smells that ordinarily slip by without reaching your conscious awareness.

· Recognize that your thoughts and emotions are fleeting and do not define you, an insight that can free you from negative thought patterns.

· Tune into your body’s physical sensations, from the water hitting your skin in the shower to the way your body rests in your office chair.

· Find “micro-moments” of mindfulness throughout the day to reset your focus and sense of purpose.


To develop these skills in everyday life, you can try these exercises used in Kabat-Zinn’s MBSR program and elsewhere:

· Mindful breathing, a common component of many forms of meditation that involves bringing attention to the physical sensations of the breath as it flows in and out.

· Body scan, another common practice where you bring attention to different parts of your body in turn, from head to toe.

· The raisin exercise, where you slowly use all of your senses, one after another, to observe a raisin in great detail, from the way it feels in your hand to the way its taste bursts on your tongue. This exercise is intended to help you focus on the present moment, and can be tried with different foods. Try it with dark chocolate or a fresh strawberry…maybe even together.

· Walking meditation, where you focus on the movement of your body as you take step after step, your feet touching and leaving the ground—an everyday activity we usually take for granted. This exercise is often practiced walking back and forth along a path 10 paces long, though it can be practiced along most any path.

· Loving-kindness meditation, which the GGSC’s Christine Carter explains in this post, involves extending feelings of compassion toward people, starting with yourself then branching out to someone close to you, then to an acquaintance, then to someone giving you a hard time, then finally to all beings everywhere.


When trying out these exercises, remember that different types of mindfulness practices have different benefits. It might take some experimentation to find the practice that’s right for you.


Mindfulness is a great technique to practice daily and it's an amazing tool to pull out in those moments of distress that you can't control. Being aware of all that is within you and around you allows you to manage your own responses and creates a sense of calmness. Pick an exercise to try today. The more you practice it, the more naturally mindfulness will be present within you.




Resources:

The Greater Good Magazine, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/mindfulness/definition#what-is-mindfulness

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