What is mindfulness?

The concept of what we presently call mindfulness originated in Eastern contemplative practices, as what was then known as sati, from the ancient Pali language.  Attempts to translate sati suggest awareness, discernment, as well as remembering. In today’s understanding of the word, mindfulness means remembering to be fully attentive to what is happening in your present experience with care and discernment.

Mindfulness as seen in today’s Western scientific perspective and mindfulness in the Buddhist sense are not at odds.  The Buddhist meditative techniques are aimed at increasing post-meditative mindfulness while the Western approach, which includes Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), is concerned primarily with the immediate.  It feels good to be present, attending to what is right now, by noticing new aspects of persons, things, or landscapes one may already be familiar with.  For eleven of the most pertinent definitions of mindfulness, scroll all the way down the page.

You may have thought that mindfulness and meditation were esoteric practices, linked to religious beliefs and cultural roots with which you have no connection, possibly requiring a capacity that you do not possess.  Mindfulness is now recognized as an inherent quality of human consciousness. A capacity of consciousness and awareness directed to the present moment, that can be learned, empirically measured, and is free of religious, spiritual, or cultural beliefs.

Mindfulness is being applied in a number of different areas today: in the domain of health for stress reduction, pain management, sleep disturbances, panic attacks, eating disorders, prevention of relapse into depression; in education; in prisons; in hospitals, to name just a number of areas where mindfulness is now being taught.  Mindfulness is also the object of a new realm of research by neuroscientists and psychologists in relation to its consequences on the mind-body complex and health.  The most recent domain of research linked to mindfulness is its impact on creativity.

Mindfulness is a cultivated state of mind in which you pay full attention to the present moment.

With these important aspects:

  • You choose to be aware of your immediate experience; it is an act you decide on.
  • You observe what is emerging, in this instant, with curiosity and openness.  Beginner’s mind, in short.
  • You put the inner critic on hold.  You observe, you notice, but you try not to judge.

Mindfulness came to prominence in the late 70s when Jon Kabat-Zinn, a biologist at the University of Massachusetts, interested in the mind-body connection, thought of using an age-old tradition of bringing the body into harmony with the mind.  He put together a program, bringing together the fruits of his own practice of meditation and yoga, with his mind-body research at the U. of Massachusetts’ medical center.  Not surprisingly, the program was based on two components: meditation, to still the body and quiet the mind; and yoga, to further enable the person to tune in to the body.  In brief, self-care in both the mental and the physical.  Jon Kabat-Zinn succeeded in re-contextualizing ancient Eastern contemplative practices such as insight meditation, body scan, and yoga into what he called the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program, or MBSR, that evolved into the present 8-week training offered on the Programme page of this website.

Mindfulness means paying attention and experiencing life as it occurs, in the moment, while keeping an open and honest perspective about whatever we encounter. We will continue to have experiences we like and some we don’t like, but with mindfulness, perhaps we won’t wrestle quite as much to make sure we have more of the former and avoid the latter as much as we possibly can. Mindfulness is a way of reinforcing an innate capacity that benefits ourselves and those around us.  This capacity already exists in ourselves but often we have lost touch with it because of our tendency to scatter our attention.  Through mindfulness training, we cultivate an ability to manage our lives with less stress and a better sense of balance.

Christina Feldman’s simple definition of mindfulness may speak to you:

‘Mindfulness is the willingness and capacity to be equally present with all events and experience with discernment, curiosity, and kindness.’

David S. Black proposes this very thorough definition:

Mindfulness is…

  • an open and receptive attention to and awareness of what is occurring in the present moment;
  • an awareness that arises through intentionally attending in an open, accepting, and discerning way to whatever is arising in the present moment;
  • an attention that is receptive to the whole field of awareness and remains in an open state so that it can be directed to currently experienced sensations, thoughts, emotions, and memories;
  • it is…perhaps most important of all…waking up from a life lived on automatic pilot and based on habitual responding.

A key component of mindfulness is meditation. Consider meditation like exercising. Do some regular exercise and you’ll keep your body more supple, your brain better irrigated, your muscles toned.  Same applies to meditation: meditate regularly and your brain will be better irrigated, the neural pathways that fuse in the brain will become expressways to greater contentment.  Not that you were thinking of those aspects when considering signing up for a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course!

Seriously now, what really happens when we practice mindfulness?

There are several mechanisms through which mindfulness works:

Firstly, we learn to sustain our attention on a chosen object.  This is what’s usually called meditation.  The first object will be, very simply, our breathing.  As we breathe in and out, we proceed to be more aware of our body sensations, the abdomen softly expanding out on the in-breath, falling back in on the out-breath.

This brings us to the second mechanism, body awareness.  Feel your feet.  Hot, cold? Tight in your shoes? Can you feel the touch of your tights or your socks? Can you feel your feet in contact with the floor?   If you’re sitting, feel the weight of your torso on your buttocks, the hard wood of the chair you’re sitting on, or the cushiness of the upholstery.  Awareness of the body allows us to be rooted firmly in the present moment.

Thirdly, we learn to approach our emotions differently–we wean ourselves from the old dualistic patterns of ‘I love this,’ ‘I hate this,’ ‘I want this to last forever,’ ‘If this lasts one more minute, I’m tearing my hair out.’  Meditation strengthens our ability to notice when we make judgments, when we launch ourselves into action without pausing to think, following our old patterns of knee-jerk reacting.

Fourthly, we learn to expose ourselves to whatever is present in the field of awareness–whatever is out there, or whatever is within ourselves.  We allow ourselves to be affected by it, while not reacting internally (not wallowing in self-pity, not self-righteously complaining).  Sound like too unreal?  Not within your means? Wait. It’s a process. You’ll be learning, step by step.

The last mechanism through which mindfulness works is detachment.  You’ll gradually move away from identifying with a sense of self.  That old self of yours that you thought you knew, cast in bronze, imprisoning you.  All this may seem very far away from what you think you can do.  Mindfulness is enabling.

Here’s a definition of mindfulness that may appeal to you:

Mindfulness can be defined as a heightened awareness of the present moment that comes about from paying attention to your thoughts on purpose and without making judgements (‘this is boring,’ ‘I want to go outside/check my email/have an ice cream,’ ‘Am I doing this right?’ ‘I don’t think meditation’s working for me’). You learn to think about your thoughts and emotions as passing events–like clouds in the sky, or trains in a landscape–rather than entering into a dialogue with them or giving importance to them. Doing this has been shown to have positive results  for chronic anxiety and depression. Training in Mindfulness makes you less vulnerable to emotional ups and downs.

The meditation that is part of mindfulness modifies one’s inner world as well as changes the circuitry in the brain.

Jon Kabat-Zinn delved into meditative practices he was familiar with, proven useful over time–Theravada, Vipassana, Zen, insight meditation and yoga have centuries, millennia even, of practice behind them–and he put together what evolved into the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course.  He adapted these age-old traditions fueled by the desire to help people deal with their health problems, and more recently, to be less overcome by today’s hectic pace.  MBSR also triggered a flurry of scientific interest and research into the consequences of mindful meditation on health, particularly the transformations it brings about in the brain.  (See journal articles: Functional brain mapping of the relaxation response and meditation, Sarah W. Lazar et al, 2000; Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation, Richard J. Davidson et al, 2003; Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density, Britta K. Hölzel et al, 2011.  Online there’s a succinct article by Andrea Grabova on how mindfulness transforms the brain: http://www.mindfulness-matters.org/2008/11/01/the-neurobiology-of-mindfulness/)

The aim in mindfulness meditation is that of focused attention on the present moment, the now, while the body is still. The mind wanders all the time.  Thoughts constantly flit in and out of our minds. While meditating, we focus our attention on an anchor, such as the sensations of breathing – the air entering and exiting the nostrils, or the rising and falling of the belly.  The mind will inevitably wander, and each time, we deliberately bring it back to the present moment, to wherever we are in the cycle of breathing, instead of ruminating on the past, daydreaming, or projecting ourselves into the future. This very simple, but highly challenging act can make a big impact on how we live from moment to moment. Many people have found it a source of strength.

Eckhart Tolle writes: ‘Realize deeply that the present moment is all you ever have.  Make the Now the primary focus of your life.’

From the American naturalist, Henry David Thoreau, Walden: ‘I did not read books the first summer; I hoed beans. Nay, I often did better than this. There were times when I could not afford to sacrifice the bloom of the present moment to any work, whether of the head or hands. ‘

 

 

Why try to achieve mindfulness?

As you drove to work this morning, did you find yourself making a list of your food shopping? Or maybe you were rehashing the argument you had with your boss the day before, and before we know it, woops, that was the sidewalk.  Or you were seeing in your mind’s eye worrying images of your youngest child entrusted to a caretaker you haven’t fully checked out. Without being always aware of it, you find yourself in knee-jerk reactions in response to things said or done–at your workplace, on the phone, at the dinner table–and before you know it, criticizing, snapping, and maybe being hurtful without really intending to be so. Or perhaps, reacting to real or imagined criticism by feeling hurt, and like so many times before, withdrawing into your little cell, nursing your resentment.

The point is, much of our day-to-day time is spent on ‘autopilot’.

Without realizing it, we lose ourselves in fantasies and fears and planning and all sorts of random and not-so-random thoughts and emotions. When we practice meditation by focusing our attention, we address our habitual pattern. For example, you might decide, “Right this moment, I’m going to listen, but really truly pay attention to my spouse when she talks to me instead of planning what I’ll say in tomorrow’s meeting.”

By practicing mindfulness, we’ll still find ourselves getting distracted, but we’ll notice that we have been distracted, and the return to being present in the moment will get easier. The persons who live with us notice the difference when we get into practicing mindfulness.

There’s a study that Ellen Langer, neuroscientist did with orchestra musicians. Dr. Ellen Langer, Ph.D., is a social psychologist and the first female professor to gain tenure in the Psychology Department at Harvard University. Members of the Arizona State University Orchestra were asked to play the Brahms’ First Symphony twice. The first time, they were given the following instructions:

Think about the finest performance of this piece that you can remember. Play it that way.

The second time, these were the instructions given to the orchestra:

Play this piece in the finest manner you can, offering subtle new nuances to your performance.

Langer has performed extensive research on the effects of mindfulness, including its impact on creativity and live performance. In the case of the orchestra, she argues that the first set of instructions led the orchestra to reproduce a ‘fixed’ past performance from memory, taking their attention away from the present moment.

The second performance however, the orchestra was invited to express ‘new nuances’ in their playing – which, according to Langer, meant they were mindfully aware in the present. This awareness and presence was what made the difference, eliciting the following comments from the audience:

“There was more energy.” “The dynamic range was wider.” “The louds and softs were more pronounced.”

(Reported in ‘The Marriage of Mozart and Mindfulness’ by Tom Jacobs)

Caught in the distraction of myriad thoughts whizzing in and out of our minds on any given day, the act of escorting our attention back to the moment is a huge and vital step.  It feels good to notice things.  We feel alive.  Our attention improves.

When we allow ourselves to simply be in the moment and observe what is there, we find some thoughts are worth our attention and others are not. Thoughts and emotions emerge and, with a sense of equanimity and discernment, we allow ourselves to enjoy what is pleasant, but also accept what is less so, simply because that’s the way things are right now.  Since anything we experience over and over again rewires the brain (as shown in Sarah W. Lazar’s research at Harvard), this act of meditating, of being aware of what’s present in the moment without judging, becomes part of our neurology. 

Practicing meditation influences how we act throughout the rest of the day.  As we meditate, our mind wanders off again and again, as it is prone to do, and we guide it back without flaying ourselves for having “failed” at what is basically impossible, i.e., keeping our minds on the anchor we have chosen (the breath, or sounds, or sensations in the body). As in life, we cannot always get it right immediately, nor for long periods, and therefore we must give ourselves the benefit of the doubt for working at it in the first place. By training our ability to be aware of what is going on in ourselves in the present moment, we may find ourselves more able to bring our full attention to our partners, our children, our job, or pausing to reflect before impulsively reacting when life frustrates or infuriates us.  We may even discover new solutions to old problems.

Many participants say about the required home practice, ‘It’s just so time-consuming!’  My reply to that is:  I find that the time I put into meditation is disproportionate to the gains–I have more hours in the day, use my time better, am more punctual, and find a sense of spaciousness, of clarity, within me.

 

MINDFULNESS IN MANAGEMENT

Mindfulness means being aware of both external and internal phenomena occurring in the present moment. In a mindful state you are attentive to what is happening around you and to what is happening within you.  In short, you might notice the particular words a client uses, the tone of his voice, his facial expression, the changes in body language from moment to moment. At the same time, you notice what you’re feeling in reaction to all these. Are you wary, curious, annoyed? Are you trying to figure him out, to classify, to decide what to say next? You listen to the words that come out of your mouth and notice the client’s reactions to them.

Thus, in mindfulness, you get the big picture, or what a management specialist, Erik Dane, calls ‘wide attentional breadth’ — you are aware of a lot of things taking place all at the same time. This makes it very different from a situation where your focus on the task is such that you lose awareness of yourself.

Mindfulness is different from ‘mind wandering’ because your attention is directed to the present rather than rewriting past scenarios or speculating on what might happen in the future.  The practices learned in mindfulness training lead to deep, attentive, listening.

Mindfulness can enhance your creativity as recent studies have shown.  If you’re interested, this link can open up pathways to research findings.

Mindful creativity: the influence of mindfulness meditation on creative thinking

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3887545/

 

IN PARENTING

Being a parent can be a humbling experience. There is so much that is uncertain and unpredictable even in the most ordinary, fully functional families.  Therefore if we have challenging children to bring up, like a hyperactive child with a diagnosis of ADHD, or a depressed teen-ager, or if we live with someone who has a substance addiction problem, or is suffering from an eating disorder, daily life is even more complicated.  Sometimes our children fall seriously ill, as with major depressive episode, or cancer, or leukemia, and sometimes have painful treatments to undergo. In those moments, as parents we may feel helpless.  As we can do when we have elderly parents to care for, often geographically distant from us.

We plan and predict and try to be as happy as humanly possible, but we cannot control everything.  We have to learn to accept the uncertainty, the unpredictability, that each day brings.  Mindfulness can bring us to an even-er keel, so necessary when there is so much that can knock you off balance as test results arrive, therapies show little progress, as the days go by and there is little light at the end of the tunnel.  It also teaches us how to be more mindful of the child, his/her needs, the problems that are particularly difficult for him/her to confront.  Mindful also of your elderly parent, who wishes to keep some autonomy and you are at your wits’ end on how to set this up.  How to listen better, and not only to the words.  If you feel that you’re less than the pillar of Gibraltar you ought to be in this moment, perhaps there is something for you in learning to sit still and be with yourself in the moment.

 

AGEING

The last time you ran for the bus, did you heart race?  Did your knees cry out?

Have you recently found yourself on the threshold of a room, wondering, What was it I came to fetch?

Are you reading the ads for face creams that promise to revitalize mature skin?  Or are you pondering a choice: face lift, or that trip down the Nile you’ve been dreaming of?  You might want to listen to the podcast of Doris Taylor talking about her research on stem cells: http://being.publicradio.org/programs/2010/stem-cells/

Is the obit page one you no longer skip?

Is that shoulder/knee/hip pain simply not going away?

As we age and our bodies grow less supple, various aches and pains emerge, and we are confronted with the fact:  We’re getting old.  We’re starting to think, death isn’t just an idea anymore.  Not the sunniest of topics at any moment.  There is a way of reconciling ourselves to what is. We can accept the reality that we are inching our way to the moment where we trip the light fantastic.  At a moment where our abdominal muscles are getting slack, our kneecaps needing replacement, or our hips, or our short-term memory starts flagging, mindful meditation may offer respite from dwelling on the past and various losses due to ageing, or from projecting ourselves into the future and fearing the symptoms that may affect the body and the mind.  Gentle yoga may bring a sensation of greater wellness than one suspected.  Or simply an awareness that one can be fully alive at any age.

 

IN BRIEF

With mindfulness training we aim to learn basic life skills, including the capacity to handle the ups and downs of life with equanimity and if possible, wisdom. We can learn how to be in the now. We learn to care for our bodies at least a minimum, with yoga or other mindful movements every day, another key component to mindfulness training with its focus on awareness of the body from within the body.  In the yoga practiced in mindfulness training, we go as far as the body’s threshold, but only as far as it can, day by day, and using the breath to facilitate the movements, and trying to keep in mind that the body yields, a little each time you do  yoga.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction is a proven, guided, way to start. By practicing the body scan, sitting meditation, or meditative walking, we allow ourselves some time each day to let our minds settle. As Jon Kabat-Zinn puts it, while he lets drop a yellow tennis ball from one hand at face level to the other hand in his lap, ‘Dropping down.  Resting in awareness.’

We strengthen our ability to notice when we’re distracted and come back to reality in the moment. Every time we pause and reflect, we have the opportunity to choose what to say, to determine what is best kept to ourselves because of its hurtful nature; what action to take, or not to take.  When we’re lost in thought, we miss significant moments with our partners, our kids. We miss the moment, period.  We’re simply not there.  Reacting without pause, we fall into the ruts of our habitual patterns, for worse usually. By learning to sit still and be aware of the ever-changing flux of sensations in our body, we refocus ourselves on the present and on all the choices we make every day from moment-to-moment.

We learn about how our minds work when we do mindfulness training, but we learn this physically, not intellectually.  We also learn about our body by getting to know the geography of our body through the inside, as when we do the body scan.  How well do you know the geography of your body?  Most often we know what our body looks like in the mirror, its external appearance, but we don’t know how it feels from the inside at all, unless some body part dysfunctions then it takes up all our attention.  Or we learn our physical geography through the hands of others–the caress of a mother, of a lover, or through massage therapy.  In the body scan (sometimes called lying-down meditation), we visit our body from toe to scalp, simply observing internal and external sensations, as we would slowly amble through a house with many rooms, some of them left unopened for years.  British writer Tim Parks wrote of his experience with the body scan in his book, Teach Us to Sit Still: ‘…it is like a man wandering through the rooms of a house, in the dark, knocking on this door and that, perhaps after a long absence, checking if anyone is home, if anyone wants to talk, or gripe, or rejoice, or simply turn on a light for him.’

To conclude, this quote:

“Mindfulness is about befriending and listening in on who we are, and surrendering the incredible burden of who we think we are. It’s a radical act to stop, drop in on yourself for a moment and stop. It’s a radical act of sanity and a radical act of love.” Jon Kabat-Zinn

 

11 DEFINITIONS OF MINDFULNESS

  1. The clear and singleminded awareness of what actually happens to us and in us at the successive moments of perception (Nyanaponika Thera, 1972; cited in Brown & Ryan, 2003
  2. Keeping one’s consciousness alive to the present reality (Hanh, 1976; cited in Brown & Ryan, 2003)
  3. Psychological and behavioral versions of meditation skills usually taught in Eastern spiritual practices… [usually focused on] observing, describing, participating, taking a nonjudgmental stance, focusing on one thing in the moment, being effective (Linehan, 1993; as cited in Hayes and Shenk, 2004)
  4. Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally (Kabat-Zinn, 1994)
  5. A state of psychological freedom that occurs when attention remains quiet and limber, without attachment to any particular point of view (Martin, 1997).
  6. Bringing one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis (Marlatt & Kristeller, 1999)
  7. A way of paying attention that originated in Eastern meditation practices (Baer, 2003).
  8. To simply “drop in” on the actuality of [one’s] lived experience and then to sustain it as best [one] can moment by moment, with intentional openhearted presence and suspension of judgment and distraction (Kabat-Zinn, 2003).
  9. Mindfulness captures a quality of consciousness that is characterized by clarity and vividness of current experience and functioning and thus stands in contrast to the mindless, less “awake” states of habitual or automatic functioning that may be chronic for many individuals (Brown & Ryan, 2003)
  10. Broadly conceptualized… a kind of nonelaborative, nonjudgmental, present-centered awareness in which each thought, feeling, or sensation that arises in the attentional field is acknowledged and accepted as it is (Kabat-Zinn, 1990, 1998; Shapiro & Schwartz, 1999, 2000; Teasdale, 1999; Segal, Williams, & Teasdale, 2002; as cited in Bishop et al., 2004)
  • A process of regulating attention in order to bring a quality of nonelaborative awareness to current experience and a quality of relating to one’s experience within an orientation of curiosity, experiential openness, and acceptance. We further see mindfulness as a process of gaining insight into the nature of one’s mind and the de-centered perspective (Safran & Segal, 1990) on thoughts and feelings so that they can be experienced in terms of their subjectivity (versus their necessary validity) and transient nature (versus their permanence) (Bishop et al., 2004).