What is Mindfulness?

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While mindfulness has its origins in Buddhist teachings and meditation practices, over the past few decades it has been increasingly investigated by scientists with a view to assessing its potential social and health benefits (Kabat-Zinn, 2003). Mindfulness training programs like Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) are non-religious scientifically tested programs that aim to increase mindfulness and thereby help ease physical and psychological suffering, and build greater happiness and contentment in life.

Click on the following highlighted you-tube links to watch some classic documentaries on mindfulness:

Core aims of mindfulness training:

  • Learn how to step out of automatic ways of thinking and reacting.
  • Build present moment focus and concentration.
  • Cultivate a more stable and relaxed response to difficulties.
  • Gain clarity and insight into the workings of your mind and body.
  • More gentle, non-judgemental, and accepting towards experience.
  • Develop psychological and behavioural flexibility.
  • Increase tolerance of negative emotions and discomfort.
  • Regulate rather than react to changing mood and emotion.

However, what exactly is mindfulness itself? A number of key definitions of mindfulness have been proposed, although there are other perspectives on what mindfulness is.

Definition 1: “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally” (Kabat Zinn, 1994, p. 4).

Definition 2: mindfulness appears to reflect certain qualities of mind, such as non-reactivity, observational awareness, acting with awareness and concentration, describing current experience, and a non-judgemental attitude towards experience (Baer, Smith, Hopkins et al., 2006).

Definition 3: “a fully conscious, alert, discriminating quality of mind. It implies self-observation and a capacity for reflection. The Buddha said we are mindful if we can describe what is in our mind at any moment.” (Harrison, 2013, p.13).

Mindfulness practices and mindfulness training in this context encourage moment to moment attention to internal and external experiences such as thoughts, feelings, body sensations, sights, and sounds via meditation practices and other related exercises (Kabat Zinn, 1990; Linehan, 1993). However, mindfulness training does not aim to dwell on thought, feelings, and body sensations in an unhelpful way, rather it aims to cultivate a new relationship to such experiences. This new relationship, which can be called “mindfulness”, involves a more gentle, present moment focused, accepting, and kind approach to experience that may eventually reduce stress and prevent the spiral of negative thinking and negative mood (Segal, Williams, & Teasdale 2002). With mindfulness you can learn to experience difficult thoughts, emotions and pain, but in a way that is less overwhelming, less judgemental, and less reactive. In so doing you can bring about a balance between accepting experience, and taking more mindful and considered action. Eric Harrison (2014) argues that we are mindful for a purpose, that is to make better evaluations (more refined judgments) and if necessary change how we are approaching and dealing with the current situation in a more reflective manner.

Mindfulness training thus aims to build the previous qualities through practice. Relaxation, reduced stress responses, and better mood often comes with greater mindfulness, but this is not its primary aim. In a way mindfulness training is paradoxical, the harder you try to relax or eliminate unpleasant experiences the more it can allude you. Mindfulness involves a more considered and intentional way of living and relating to yourself and the world around you. Rather than a habitual way of attending, reacting and behaving. That being said, habitual behaviours and responses are not necessarily wrong and are sometimes necessary. There is an aspect of the mind and thinking that will always be automatic. Moreover, most mundane tasks can be enacted without much considered thinking, e.g., tying your show laces; eating an apple. However, habitual responses can become unhelpful when a person is stressed or not acting and responding in a more considered manner that is required for the task at hand.

These definitions aside, mindfulness can only truly be understood from the experience of developing your own practice. This usually means some type of mindfulness training course such as MBCT or MBSR. Each of these courses typcially involve an 8-week program that consists of a weekly 2 to 3 hour class with a large meditation component, as well as other exercises. However it is also possible to practice with an individual teacher/practitioner, although in some ways it is easier and more effective using a class-based approach. Some psychologists may also include a mindfulness component within a broader psychotherapy approach.

How is mindfulness practice different to meditation?

According to Eric Harrison (2013) mindfulness is not exactly the same as meditation although they overlap to a large extent. Meditation is a formal practice that can take a number of forms and have a number of purposes.  Most often it aims to build selective attention on a particular body sensation (e.g., the breath) while noticing peripheral thoughts, without following them or elaborating on them (just letting them go and returning focus to the breath or body). This process if practiced generally leads to better concentration, physical relaxation, mental calm/stillness and mental clarity. Eric calls this practice focusing and peripheral monitoring, where the focusing aspect of attention is emphasised. Formal mindfulness practices used in MBSR and MBCT on the other hand often begin with this type of practice (e.g., the body scan practice) to build better concentration and skill at being more present, but as one progresses through the program there is a greater emphasis on meditation practices that involve monitoring thoughts and feelings, and accepting them without doing anything with them (a non-reactive observer stance towards experience). The focusing aspect in this type of practice is more broad and emphasizes awareness and monitoring of thought, feeling and sensations and how they interrelate. Moreover, you can practice mindfulness in a less formal way without sitting down and meditating on one specific sensory object. For example you could be mindful of doing tasks or eating, physical tension, or noticing you postural shifts during the day. Mindfulness in MBCT and MBSR is thus less concerned with physical relaxation and mental stillness, as would often be the aim of standard meditation practices, and more interested in practicing being present, aware, non-reactive and developing a different relationship to thoughts and feelings. For more explanation, read Eric’s book “Mindfulness 101”.