What is Mindfulness?



What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness has become increasingly popular in Western society over the last 20 years and although it has its roots in Buddhism (Keng et al. 2013; Kabatt-Zinn, 2012), the secular practice of mindfulness has become very much mainstream (Greater Good Science Center NB yr). It is not unusual to find mindfulness classes being offered in workplaces, schools, colleges, community groups and health services, as a practical tool people can use to promote their own personal health and wellbeing.

But what exactly is mindfulness and why should we practice it? Well according to Jon Kabat-Zinn, the American Professor who is credited with bringing the practice of mindfulness to Western society and who developed the world-renowned Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction programme, mindfulness is “awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a sustained and particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally” (Kabat- Zinn, 2012, p.1). It involves being present with our thoughts, emotions, feelings, bodily sensations, and our environment, noticing and accepting them, without judging them as right or wrong (GGSC). Pretty straight-forward, right? However, if you ask anyone who has given it a go or those who have managed to cultivate a sustained mindfulness practice, they will tell you that it may sound simple, but it is definitely not easy. Jon Kabat-Zinn himself states in his book Wherever You Go, There You Are, that mindfulness takes “effort and discipline for the simple reason that the forces that work against our being mindful…are so strong and out of our consciousness that an inner commitment and a certain kind of work are necessary just to keep up our attempts to capture our awareness and sustain mindfulness” (Kabat-Zinn, 2004, p.8).

Why Practice Mindfulness?

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Thanks to the work and writings of people like Jon Kabat-Zinn, Thich Nhat Hanh, Sharon Salzberg, Dr. Judson Brewer, Dr. Shauna Shapiro, and Dr. Richard J Davidson, the physical and mental health benefits of mindfulness have been well established. Mindfulness can also bring about structural changes to our brains; it can help us to become more focussed and reduce our susceptibility to illness.

The Greater Good Science Center based in UC Berkeley in the US have outlined the many benefits that mindfulness has been associated with.

See example of the benefits they list in the link above. And below for examples of some of the benefits from their website.

  1. Mindfulness changes our brains: Research has found that it increases density of gray matter in brain regions linked to learning, memory, emotion regulation, and empathy
  2. Mindfulness helps us focus: Studies suggest that mindfulness helps us tune out distractions and improves our memory, attention skills, and decision-making.
  3. Mindfulness is good for our bodies: A seminal study found that, after just eight weeks of training, practicing mindfulness meditation boosts our immune system’s ability to fight off illness. Practicing mindfulness may also improve sleep quality.
  4. Mindfulness enhances relationships: Research suggests mindfulness training makes couples more satisfied with their relationship, makes each partner feel more optimistic and relaxed, and makes them feel more accepting of and closer to one another.

Mindfulness has also shown to: