Mindfulness has become a popular buzzword in the health and wellness industry, but many people still do not understand what it really means. At its core, mindfulness is a 2500-year-old practice rooted in Eastern spirituality and philosophy. It is intimately connected to the Buddhist practice of vipassana meditation, which offers an ethical and moral code of conduct.
Mindfulness has evolved in the Western world and has become a non-religious practice for mental wellbeing. The focus of this article is on the clinical model of mindfulness developed in the West.
Mindfulness aims to cultivate present moment awareness both within the body and the environment. However, awareness is only the first element. Non-judgmental acceptance of the present moment is essential for true mindfulness to occur. Thoughts and feelings are explored without an emphasis on right, wrong, past, or future.
The benefits of mindfulness are many. Along with MBSR, other models have been developed and adapted for use by clinical counselors, psychologists, and therapists. These include Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT).
Structured models of mindfulness allow researchers to study its benefits. Research has uncovered an abundance of benefits including mental, physical, cognitive, and spiritual. Practicing mindfulness can have positive impacts on mental health. It has been positively associated with desirable traits, such as autonomy, agreeableness, conscientiousness, competence, empathy, and optimism. Mindfulness helps to improve self-esteem, increase life satisfaction, and enhance self-compassion. It is associated with pleasant emotions and mood, and people who practice it appear to be happier and experience more joy in life. Not only does it increase happiness but it may also ward off negativity.
Mindfulness helps individuals to let go of negative thoughts and regulate emotions. For example, it may decrease fear, stress, worry, anger, and anxiety. MBSR was originally designed to treat chronic pain, and it has since evolved to include the treatment of anxiety and depression. Clinical studies have shown that MBSR is linked with reduced chronic pain and improved quality of life, decreased risk of relapse in depression, reduced negative thinking in anxiety disorders, prevention of major depressive disorders, and reducing substance-use frequency and cravings.
Mindfulness has many important benefits for cognitive health as well. In a study of college students, mindfulness increased performance in attention and persistence. Another study found that individuals who practice it have increased cognitive flexibility. A brain scan found increased thickness in areas of the brain related to attention, interception, and sensory processing.
Mindfulness can be practiced in many different ways. However, most practices include these elements: an object to focus awareness on (breath, body, thoughts, sounds), awareness of the present moment, openness to experience whatever comes up, acceptance that the mind will wander, and the intention to return awareness to the object of focus whenever the mind wanders. A practice that encompasses these elements is typically called mindfulness meditation. Most mindfulness meditations will be practiced between 5 to 50 minutes, per day.
There is truly no right or wrong way to practice mindfulness, but most mindfulness meditations are done seated with an object of focus related to the breath, body, thoughts, emotions, or sounds. However, daily activities such as walking or eating can be practiced as a form of mindfulness meditation, as long as the aforementioned elements are in place.
Loving-kindness is a form of meditation that focuses on sending love and compassion to others. It may begin with kindness for the self and extend outward towards close family and friends, communities, nations, and the world. Loving-kindness may even involve sending love and compassion towards enemies.
Breathing meditation is a practice where the focus remains on the breath. Whenever the mind begins to wander, the attention is brought back to the breath. The effects of breathing meditation relate to attention. Breathing meditation is linked to changes in the way information is processed.
A body scan is as simple as it sounds. Attention is brought to each part of the body. Participants can choose to start from the top of the head or the bottom of the feet. It can be helpful to imagine a warmth or a color spreading from one body part to the next as each part begins to relax. When body scan and breathing are combined, there are many benefits. Interoceptive sensitivity is the mind’s ability to focus on bodily cues. It is strengthened by body scanning. Body scanning also helps with attention and focus.
In observing thoughts meditation, the focus is on the thoughts. This is an opportunity to practice non-judgmental observation. It is also a practice of non-attachment. Within the study, observing-thoughts meditation was linked to a decrease in depressive symptoms.
In conclusion, mindfulness is a powerful tool that can improve mental, physical, cognitive, and spiritual wellbeing. It is a non-judgmental way to cultivate awareness and acceptance of the present moment. Mindfulness can be practiced in many different ways, including loving-kindness, breathing, body scan, and observing-thoughts meditation. It is a practice that can be done by anyone, anywhere, and at any time.