If you have read or otherwise been exposed to the topic of wellness, you have also likely become at least passingly familiar with the practice of mindfulness. It has, in recent years, migrated from being somewhat of a fringe interest for some alternative health practitioners to being a fairly mainstream approach. But what is it, and how does it work?
First of all, mindfulness is effective. It is effective as a means to reduce stress, manage chronic pain or deal with psychological challenges. It has been shown to increase performance on a variety of tasks, in the workplace or on the athletic field — even for competitive chess players.
As the practice has moved into the mainstream, it has received increasingly critical attention from scientists and researchers. Major research universities such as the University of Wisconsin, the University of Massachusetts and the University of California – Los Angeles all have research programs that are studying the effects of mindfulness. As the data roll in, the conclusion is increasingly clear: mindfulness
There is not a singular definition for mindfulness. My favorite, and the one put forth by a pioneer of the use of mindfulness in therapeutic settings, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, is the following:
“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; On purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
This definition certainly has the virtue of brevity. Although brief, it does get at the core components of mindfulness. It is a fundamentally simple practice. Mindfulness involves slowing ourselves down enough to actually experience what is going on in our minds and our bodies right now. It’s like cultivating a little part of ourselves that, instead of being led around by the ear by our curiosities, whims and wireless devices, takes a step back and actually pays attention to what is going on, and whether we are engaged in our lives in a way that we want to be. You could think of it like this: mindfulness is an antidote to auto-pilot.
To practice mindfulness, we first choose to pay close attention to only one thing at a time. What should we focus on? That is the simple part. It can be any number of things, but I find that the most reliable thing to focus on is your own breath. It is always with you, as long as you are alive. It is even and consistent, and very predictable.
To start, just sit down in a comfortable yet upright position, with relatively good posture. Begin by taking a couple of really big, deep breaths. Close your eyes. Bring your attention to the simple act of breathing. Notice the way the air feels as it passes through your nostrils.
Notice how your diaphragm relaxes to accommodate the influx of air. See if you can pinpoint the moment in which the inhale turns over into an exhale, and feel your diaphragm flex as the air is expelled. See if you can observe the temperature of the air on the way out, compared to the way in. A whole orchestra of thought, feeling, aches and pains are likely to arise. Our job is not to conduct the orchestra, it is to sit in the audience and pay attention, rather than get up and go to the bathroom, check our iPhones or go to sleep.
You would not think that such a simple practice would not spawn endless books and reams of research. Of, course, when the simplest practice imaginable runs into the wildest, most complex organic system in the history of the world (a human mind), even simple things become complex.
You will run into trouble sitting still. You will get distracted. You will wonder about what the point of all this sitting might be. You will get bored and daydream. No matter what experience comes your way, the mindful response is the same:
Sit still, pay attention.
To learn more, I recommend Jon Kabat-Zinn’s seminal book on the subject, Full Catastrophe Living.
What is mindfulness, and how can it help me? - News - Canton Daily Ledger - Canton, IL