These days, mindfulness and the present are terms that are thrown around a lot. It has been linked to various physical and mental health benefits, including reduced anxiety and heightened concentration, and it’s being practiced by more and more people across the globe.
However, it may still be unclear to you exactly what mindfulness is.
This is partly because the word ‘mindfulness’ can refer both to a state of mind that can be accessed during everyday life, and to the more formal practice of mindfulness meditation.
In this article, we’ll take a look at both interpretations, focusing on these key points:
- The origins of mindfulness
- Psychology and mindfulness
- How mindfulness works
- The key benefits of this practice
Shortly, we’ll get stuck into where mindfulness all began. But first, let’s consider what this term actually refers to, and take a look at some popular definitions of mindfulness.
The Definition of mindfulness
Experienced meditators, spiritual teachers, and psychologists all view mindfulness in slightly different ways. It can be hard to pin down a precise definition, but there are a few key principles that most people agree on.
Meditation teacher Shinzen Young defines mindfulness as a system of “concentration power, sensory clarity, and equanimity working together.”
Here, he’s referring to the process of being aware of what’s happening both inside you and around you (AKA the present), and feeling at ease with those experiences. So it’s clear that mindfulness is about far more than just paying attention.
Meanwhile, author and psychiatrist Ruth Baer describes it as “focusing one’s attention in a non-judgmental or accepting way on the experience occurring in the present moment”.
Psychologist Zindel Segal’s definition views the practice as “a process of regulating attention in order to bring a quality of non-elaborative awareness to current experience”.
Whichever you think is most accurate, a few key ideas connect most definitions of mindfulness:
- Non-judgemental observation
- Present moment awareness
- Close attention
- Acceptance of experiences
Developing these qualities on a regular basis can have a massive impact on your life. We’ll take a look through some of the key benefits of mindfulness soon; but first, let’s explore the origins of this practice.
The Origins of Mindfulness
Mindfulness can be traced back several thousand years to various ancient Asian societies.
Most early forms of mindfulness derive from Buddhist or Hindu traditions, and they’re guided largely by a moral code and a commitment to a wholesome existence.
However, the modern understanding of the term has strayed slightly from these roots.
While the principles of mindful awareness, present moment-centeredness’ and concentration are still key, the Western adoption of the practice over the past few decades has led to a more secular, less spiritual modern manifestation.
That being said, it can still be useful to define mindfulness in relation to Buddhist tradition.
The Buddhist concept of sati (meaning “awareness” in Pali) is the root of what we now know as mindfulness.
According to the author and academic Tse-fu Kuan, sati combines simple awareness, protective awareness, introspective awareness, and deliberate awareness.
Some people believe that the repackaging of mindfulness for the white Western world has taken some of the meaning away from this ancient practice.
However, the work of more scientifically-minded modern advocates has helped us understand exactly what mindfulness does to the brain. This insight can come in pretty handy.
Let’s look into how psychology can help us understand mindfulness and this flow state of mind.
The Science and Psychology of Mindfulness
Taking a psychological approach to mindfulness can help us get a better understanding of how our brains operate.
The growth of Zen Buddhism and Transcendental Meditation in the United States in the mid-late 20th century led to more scientists becoming convinced of the benefits of mindfulness.
Lykins and Baer’s study shows that mindfulness meditators experience higher levels of well-being, self-compassion, and mindfulness than non-meditators, as well as less emotional reactivity, rumination, thought suppression, or fear of emotion.
This research is backed up by various other studies reinforcing the association of mindfulness with positive psychological and physical health.
So what is it about mindfulness that affects the brain in such a positive way?
How Does Mindfulness Work?
Regardless of the secular or spiritual context of your mindfulness practice, the science behind it remains the same.
Mindfulness is able to positively impact your brain thanks to a process called neuroplasticity, through which our brain structures can physically change, depending on our actions, choices, and behaviors.
Mindfulness meditation encourages us to take advantage of this process by deliberating causing positive changes to how our brains work.
Reprogramming our minds in this way can help us to break unhelpful habits, reduce emotional reactivity and understand certain triggers we might have.
This process takes a while, though, so it’s important to be patient. Many people will become frustrated or bored while practising mindfulness meditation, and it’s totally normal to consider giving up.
Keeping up a regular routine can have serious benefits, though — let’s take a look through some of them.
5 Benefits of Mindfulness
Mindfulness meditation may have been created with ideas of enlightenment and heightened consciousness in mind, but your goals don’t have to be that lofty. There are loads of mental and physical health benefits that make mindfulness worthwhile.
According to various scientific studies, mindfulness can boost well-being, self-compassion and empathy, as well as reducing the prominence of high emotional reactivity, thought suppression and rumination.
Below are a few of the primary benefits of mindfulness, explored in a little more detail.
1. Increased empathy and compassion
Many Buddhist practices see enhanced empathy and compassion as the main goal of meditation. Calming our minds and becoming more focused can help us treat others with more kindness, patience, and respect.
This also extends to ourselves — a little more self-care can help boost mental well-being and make our interactions with others more fruitful.
2. Greater Peace of Mind
Mindfulness encourages us to notice and observe negative thoughts and emotions, and this can help us learn how to deal with these experiences going forwards.
Studies have suggested that the areas of the brain linked to calmness, happiness and cognition actually grow physically in response to daily mindfulness meditation practice, so it’s clear that this has an effect on peace of mind.
3. Reduced Stress and Anxiety
In a similar way, becoming more observant when it comes to our own thoughts and feelings can make us better at coping with stress, anxiety and negativity throughout our lives.
Looking deeper into negative experiences we may have can help us learn how to combat these feelings when they arise.
4. Improved Sleep
Many people struggle to sleep at night, and mindfulness meditation can help end those struggles. A calmer, more peaceful state of mind naturally makes sleeping easier, and the evidence backs this up; mindfulness is proven to reduce insomnia, fatigue and depression.
5. Less Reliance on External Sources of Happiness
Most humans tend to look for happiness in external sources like money, recognition and relationships. This can be damaging, because when things don’t go our way and external factors change (like they always do), our mental and emotional health can become turbulent.
Mindfulness meditation combats this trend by asking us to find contentment and happiness within our minds, instead of from external factors.
Some people believe happiness is a state of mind, although for others it’s not always easy to come by. Focusing inwards and stopping your reliance on external sources of happiness is a great way to boost your mental health.
5 Simple Steps for Practising Mindfulness In Your Life
Okay, so we’ve now been through some of the major benefits of mindfulness, and examined how it can affect the way your brain works in a positive way.
So how can you incorporate this practice into your life?
Before we wrap up, it’s time to go over a few simple steps that can help you get to grips with mindfulness.
1. Seek Out Simple Pleasures
Enjoying a delicious meal, soaking in a warm bath, or listening to birdsong can help get you more in tune with your experiences, and grateful for the good things in life. These moments can help you access a flow state of mind, in which there is a real sense of fluidity between body and mind, and you’re totally in the moment.
2. Be Kind To Yourself
A great way to cultivate compassion and empathy for others is to be kind, forgiving, and loving to yourself, both when you make mistakes, and in daily life.
3. Practice Acceptance
In difficult moments, tell yourself that you won’t always feel down. Accept circumstances that you can’t control, and you’ll become a more tolerant, balanced, and calm person.
4. Communicate With Mindfulness and Empathy
Think more closely about your interactions with others, the words you choose, and the way you listen to people. This is a simple way to make mindfulness a more normal part of your daily life.
5. Do Some Guided Mindfulness Meditation Sessions
This is probably the most important thing you can do. Find some guided sessions (via audiobook, videos, or through apps like Headspace) and take the time to learn the ropes. You can then practice mindfulness meditation on your own, without an instructor.
Developing a more mindful approach to your daily activities and interactions can help you get better at having a cool head when you really need it. This will improve your ability to deal with life’s many demands, pressures and challenges.
Mindfulness is also about observing unhelpful thought patterns and breaking away from difficult thought cycles. Noticing and tackling negative patterns of behavior like phone addiction or bedtime procrastination relate closely to mindful thinking.
There’s a lot more to learn when it comes to mindfulness — it’s a practice that continues to grow and attract new audiences.
Hopefully, you’ll now have a decent understanding of all the basics, as well as an awareness of how the practice can benefit you. Follow the 5 simple steps above, and you can help bring mindfulness into your daily life!
And if you want to find out about more meditation-related techniques that can impact your life, check out our article on state-changing exercises for struggling meditators.