What Is Mindfulness? The Truth Behind The Hype

Guest Author: Written by Laura Jay (exclusively for MM)

What Is Mindfulness?

“Mindfulness” is a big buzzword these days.

It’s a technique which a culture parched of “spirituality” yet reluctant to appear wishy-washy has pounced upon with considerable relief. The term “mindfulness” is used so often that the actual meaning of the concept is becoming somewhat lost.

Just like when people in the 70’s used the word “Zen” to mean anything from feeling vaguely relaxed to having a deep spiritual experience. With this in mind, and to prevent confusion, it is well worth going into the origins and modern expression of mindfulness in order to to discern what it’s really all about.

The History Of Mindfulness

mindfulness-definitionMindfulness as we know it today developed from a melding of Eastern and Western thought. It draws the majority of its founding principles from Buddhism, with a healthy input from Western Transcendentalists such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

A Western reinvention of Vipassana meditation (Vipassana vs mindfulness meditation) formed a key component of this early technique.

As a reaction to nineteenth century modernism, the movement experienced a degree of success under various different guises, Zen Buddhism being just one of these.

In 1979, the disparate threads of Westernized meditation were brought together and meticulously cleaned of all mystical associations by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who introduced a “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction” [1] program at the University of Massachusetts.

His techniques have since been used continuously for a wide range of purposes across disparate environments. It is only in recent years, however, that the ‘Mindfulness’ movement has truly taken off.

Modern Mindfulness

Mindfulness as practiced today is more a way of being than one specific meditation technique. Mindfulness is used often as a therapy for a wide range of conditions (both mental and physical), and as a general tool for improving quality of life. It is not something which can be applied to a passive recipient. Instead, the individual must engage with the process and bring its effects to fruition from within themselves.

To be mindful, in the modern sense, is to be aware of yourself, of your body, your surroundings, and your environment as they exist within the moment. Modern Western culture is based upon the idea of constant progression – we live in the future. To inform our decisions regarding that future, we look to our pasts. Past and future – but never the present.

The present and personal are deeply interconnected, and should not be neglected in this manner. Many modern maladies could ultimately stem from a lack of regard for mindful thinking, as the benefits seen by distressed patients embarking upon mindfulness courses may demonstrate.

Eastern religions are aware of the importance of the present, but the rational and scientific Western mindset is often uncomfortable with embracing something so overtly spiritual (and therefore unscientific) as religion. Mindfulness allows the Western skeptic to combine [2] Western science with the more ephemeral benefits of Eastern self-knowledge. Theoretically, it provides the best of both worlds.

The Principles of Mindfulness

The principles of mindfulness are threefold:

Firstly, one must develop a deep sense of self. Modern life is full of distractions and urgencies which prevent us from reflecting deeply upon who we are and why we do things the way we do. Analysis – one of the great tools of Western psychiatry – plays a major part in this principle.

During this stage of the mindful process, one must consider one’s motivations, one’s actions and what they reveal about one’s character. However, as with many of the integrated Eastern ideals within mindfulness, it is imperative that one does not cast judgement upon anything at this point.

This leads to counterproductive neurotic rumination, and can have an impact upon self-esteem. This stage is simply to gather information and use it to form a clearer picture of your essential self. Deep self-knowledge will ultimately inspire deep self-love and self-confidence, but the other two principles need to be followed before this kind of profound self-realization can come into effect.

Secondly, you must train yourself to own your personality. You must learn to take responsibility for the way you are and the things you do. This does not mean censuring and scolding yourself for all misdemeanors. It means learning to accept that your thoughts and actions, while perhaps influenced by others, stem ultimately from nobody but yourself.

It means accepting your entire personality, and taking responsibility for it. Doing so can help you to be more in control of your thoughts and deeds. It will teach you a degree of self-compassion, and enable you to act in a more loving and responsible manner towards those around you.

Thirdly, you must free your mind by releasing those extraneous things to which you may cling despite their corrosive or restricting nature. Be they judgements, or cravings, or ideals, if they are having a poor effect upon your state of mind then you must learn to let them go.

Accept yourself and others as they are, and jettison all mental baggage which will try to inform or prejudice your understanding of either your fellow humans or yourself. This principle is often a hard one to follow, but it is worth persevering at.

How Does Mindfulness Work?

There are many ways in which mindfulness works to bring these three principles to fruition. The four main ones are: The regulation of attention, bodily awareness, emotional regulation, and a change in self-perspective. When one regulates one’s attention, one eliminates distractions by focusing on a fixed point.

This fixed point can be physical or mental – the important thing is that one returns one’s mind to this point when it begins to wander. Bodily awareness works in a similar manner, but it involves concentrating on an aspect of one’s body – breathing and heartbeat are popular choices, but emotional sensations can also work under some circumstances.

The important thing is to raise awareness of your physical presence and how it interacts with your mind. Emotional regulation refers to non-judgmental acceptance of your emotions. It also involves gaining a greater understanding of the way your emotions work, and then deliberately exposing yourself to situations which normally provoke certain reactions, and learning to regulate the way you feel under such circumstances.

This can help you train your brain to make positive rather than negative emotional choices. Finally, a change in self-perspective implies letting go of the idea that all things about you are set in stone and cannot be changed. This will allow you to become more flexible, fluid, and capable of personal growth.

Benefits of Mindfulness Activities

Mindfulness activities have a plethora of benefits, which may manifest in different ways depending on how you utilize the discipline. For a start, mindfulness promotes a greater awareness of what you are doing at any one time, meaning that you are far less likely to mindlessly shovel down junk food or get into brainless bickering matches with friends and family.

This has obvious implications for lifestyle and health on the one hand, and the success of relationships on the other. Indeed, research has shown that those who practice mindfulness techniques are far more likely to think before they speak, rather than blurting out the first thought that comes into their head during a debate. They are thus both more successful conversationalists and better at maintaining happy relationships with other humans than many others.

Mindfulness Is The Ultimate Tool for Self-Cultivated Spirituality” illustrates the difference between fleeting happiness and continual-enduring joy.

Mindfulness also promotes awareness of one’s surroundings – including one’s human surroundings. This often means that practitioners of mindfulness become more altruistic and emotionally receptive to their fellow humans. But perhaps the greatest benefits of mindfulness come in the arena of mental health. Those who meditate daily are generally more relaxed and less stressed than their counterparts (which also has a positive impact upon relationships). They are better at concentrating, and their memory function is improved.

They are far less liable to suffer from depression, and the positive thoughts promoted by mindfulness techniques provide a healthy sense of self-worth entirely untinged by arrogance. Mindfulness has helped unruly adolescents to become model students, and prison inmates to control and even eliminate angry and violent impulses, and reintegrate into society.

1. Jeffrey Brantley, “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction“, Acceptance And Mindfulness-Based Approaches To Anxiety, 2005

2. Karl E Weick, Ted Putnam, “Organizing for Mindfulness: Eastern Wisdom and Western Knowledge“, Journal of Management Enquiry, Sept 2006