If you look to your right and left in the magazine section of Barnes & Noble or the check-out line at the grocery store, there’s a good chance you’ll see a magazine with mindfulness on the cover. If you type “mindfulness” as a Google search, you’ll get over ninety-one million results. Search for ways to achieve personal and workplace wellbeing, there it is. Follow leadership and performance forums, and you’ll find mindfulness there, too. Why the buzz?
Scientific evidence has propelled this 2500+-year-old practice into popular culture. The “what’s in it for me?” questions are being answered. There are approximately seven thousand research studies about mindfulness in areas of health and wellness, stress-reduction, leadership and management, healthcare, human physiology, immunity, job burnout, attention, memory, health and wellness, performance, sports, schools, prisons, the military, first responders, resilience, and the list goes on.
What is mindfulness, anyway?
When people use the terms mindful and mindfulness, some are talking apples and others oranges. Some equate mindful and mindfulness to thoughtful and considerate. The mindfulness I am referring to is the active process of being fully present during each moment with an open, curious, and accepting quality of attention. You might even say it is not being thoughtful. Mindfulness is both a deliberate act of being aware of exactly what is happening, as it happens, without thoughts such as narratives, judgments, or elaboration, as well as the insight that arises from the process. Mindfulness is cultivated through formal and informal practices. Formal practice is mindfulness meditation and informal practices are applying mindfulness to daily activities.
Meditation is an umbrella term with many types of meditation beneath it, including mindfulness, Zen, transcendental, and visualization, to name a few. Mindfulness roots from Eastern traditions and is an evidence-based practice that is well-studied in the West. Mindfulness practice helps us identify ways that we allow or create unnecessary angst in our lives. It is “the how” of letting go of thoughts, emotions, and habits that do not serve you. It enhances compassion, including self-compassion, quieting your inner critic and increasing joy. Through mindfulness, we recognize our conditioned narratives and behaviors that color and sometimes define experiences that can lead to incorrect interpretations and unnecessary stress. We empower ourselves to become more present and more aware of experiences without adding to what is going on through the lens of thoughts, feelings, and emotions. This leads to clarity and the ability to choose our responses rather than being driven by emotional reactions.
Many people think they cannot meditate, conveying that they can’t focus on their breath because they can’t stop thinking. No worries! Mindfulness is noticing everything that you are experiencing. During meditation, normal occurrences happen, including the emergence of thoughts, mental images, body sensations, and distractions. When we notice this happening, rather than being lost in thought or being derailed by sensations, these are moments of mindfulness. Core mindfulness training involves the continual redirection of wandering attention back to your “anchor,” typically your breath or body.
You can change your mind
As we go about our days, we have a tendency to automatically rerun negative thoughts or ones associated with strong emotions. We develop pathways within our brains that reinforce habits of mind based on our experiences, including negative thinking and reacting, as well as being distracted. Hebb’s Axiom states “neurons that fire together wire together.” Commonly we walk down the street only partially aware of our surroundings while our minds sort through memories and plans, our bodies in one place, our minds in another. We sit in conversation thinking about the next thing we are going to say rather than hearing what is being said and not said, often interrupting, leading to incorrect perceptions and causing the speaker to get off-track. In fact, a large, well-done Harvard study about mind wandering showed that participant’s minds were not on what they were doing forty-seven percent of the time. Besides the problems associated with distraction like errors, rework, and decreased productivity, stress grows within wandering minds when compared to moments of full attention, even if we do not particularly like what we are doing. That Harvard study determined that wandering minds are less happy minds. When we are distracted, we miss what teacher Thich Nhat Hanh calls “our appointment with life,” which can shift our moods.
By Laura A. Bennett, MSN, ARNP, CNM