The next series of blog posts will focus on the concept of mindfulness and the practice of mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness has received a lot of attention lately and for good reason. According to the American Psychological Association, mindfulness meditation has been proven to reduce stress, increase focus and memory, and boost both relationship satisfaction and immune functioning. Though it has been around for over 2,500 years, the practice of mindful meditation has only been scientifically studied for the past 30 years.
I was initially skeptical about the usefulness of mindfulness meditation until I gave the practice a real chance in my own life. I’ve been meditating almost every day for a year so far and have come to really value the changes I’ve noticed. I now regularly coach clients on utilizing the practice to help manage their stress and difficult feelings like anger and sadness. I find clients who practice regularly stop getting tangled up in negative emotions for long periods of time. as they focus intently on their problems. Mindful meditation doesn’t actually make you feel less emotion, but rather helps you to not get caught up for extended periods of time focused on anxious and depressed thoughts. As a result, people find their stress levels significantly decrease. And less stress means more free emotional space to focus on the things that bring happiness and meaning to your life.
What exactly is ‘mindfulness’ and what does the practice of this concept involve?
Mindfulness is an approach or way to think about yourself in relation to the life as we actually experience it - from moment to moment. It refers to being as fully immersed in the present moment as is possible. The ability to remain in the present moment is cultivated through the practice of a particular type of meditation that typically focuses on your breath. To illustrate, I like to use the analogy of exercise. Think of meditation as exercise and mindfulness as a barbell. Meditation, like the barbell is a tool that unlocks the potential for a muscle to grow. Muscles and the benefits of mindfulness don’t grow overnight just because you have the right tool at hand. They each take time to cultivate through practice.
When people refer to a mindfulness meditation practice today, they are most commonly referring to one aspect of Buddhism that strips away the spiritual components of the religion. Mindfulness meditation is not based on any belief system (like reincarnation), ideology or Buddhist authority. It can stand alone, separate from religious dogma and be incredibly useful in our daily lives.
Mindfulness does not necessarily look like traditional western stereotypes of meditation, either. It need not involve sitting in a cave with a guru in Tibet, burning incense and chanting. There are a multitude of ways to practice including simply lying on your back, sitting in a chair, walking or doing yoga. You can meditate in a dark, quiet bedroom or while sitting at an airport gate waiting for your flight.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, MD, is an early western proponent of mindfulness meditation who pioneered research into stress reduction through its practice. His clinic in Massachusetts has helped thousands of people cope better with a variety of health issues through the development of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) techniques. He maintains that “Mindfulness is the awareness that arises by paying attention on purpose in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” Kabat-Zinn goes on to stress, “Mindfulness is basically just a particular way of paying attention and the awareness that arises through paying attention in that way. It is a way of looking deeply into oneself in the spirit of self-inquiry and self-understanding.”
When I introduce clients to the practice of mindfulness, there are two primary misconceptions about meditation that most people tend to believe. The first involves the idea that the primary benefit of meditation is relaxation. The truth is, you may be more relaxed as a result of mediation. However, relaxation (as wonderful as it is) is only a side benefit rather than the main event where mindfulness meditation is concerned. A solid meditation practice can yield a fundamental shift in how we experience our lives on a moment-by-moment basis. The bad experiences tend to fade more quickly. Anxiety about the future stays within manageable limits most of the time. The second misconception about mindfulness involves the idea that the goal of meditation is to empty your mind of all thought. People can misconstrue the idea that if you are “doing it right” you will think fewer and fewer thoughts until you are calm and empty of feeling and thoughts – something that has been colloquially branded in the West as a state of “Zen”..
Look for my next post where I will discuss how to overcome these misconceptions. Then, we’ll go on to look at how to you can set up your own mindfulness practice to reduce stress and other difficult emotional states to achieve greater happiness and well-being.