Thoughts on mindfulness

If you’ve been on the Internet at all over the past few years, you’ve probably seen multiple references to mindfulness.  These articles tend to feature pictures of blissful, fit, young people sitting in the lotus position and exuding radiant inner peace, while the text extols the life-changing virtues of mindfulness.  You may have wondered if mindfulness is all it’s cracked up to be, or if it’s a fad.  As a teacher of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and someone who has a regular meditation practice, I’d like to share my thoughts. 

What is mindfulness?

First off, what are we talking about when we talk about mindfulness?  There are lots of what I see as watered-down definitions out there, from “being blissful” to “enjoying every moment.”  These are wonderful aspirations, and convey a partial understanding, but there is more to be said about what mindfulness is.  I’m going to use the definition advanced by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the medical doctor who developed Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction.  He defines it this way: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”  We’ll come back to him in a minute.

Is it a fad?  Well, that depends what you mean by “fad.”  Mindfulness has certainly exploded in popularity over the past 30 years.  In its form as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, it’s been astonishingly well-researched, and has been shown to be helpful in dealing with anxiety, trauma, pain, preventing relapse for depression, high blood pressure, and a number of other concerns. 

That said, if it is a fad, it’s one that began over 2,600 years ago.  Mindfulness originated in Buddhism, and Wise Mindfulness is one of the Eightfold Path—practices that are pursued in order to alleviate suffering and cultivate well-being, peace, and spiritual growth.  Cultivating mindfulness is one of the aims of Buddhist meditation, though spiritual and wisdom traditions across cultures–Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism to name just a few–use meditation, prayer, and other contemplative practices in an analogous way. 

When Kabat-Zinn developed MBSR in 1979, he had practiced Zen and Vipassana (Insight) meditation, but wanted to see if he could adapt the practices to a wider and more secular western audience, free from the spiritual beliefs of Buddhism.  So you don’t have to have Buddhist beliefs, or any other spiritual beliefs for that matter, to practice MBSR or mindfulness meditation.  You can use the practices while holding the religious beliefs, or non-beliefs, that you already have. 

In a more nuts-and-bolts way, MBSR has several different types of meditations or awareness exercises that build on each other.  They include mindfulness of the body, mindfulness of the breath, self-compassion practice, choiceless awareness, mindfulness of sound, and mindful yoga, as well as others.  The practices can be very short, or as long as you have time for, and they can be done wherever is comfortable for you. 

Is mindfulness right for you?  Some considerations.

There are some things to consider before you begin.  First, mindfulness meditation might not be right for everyone.  In these practices, we pay nonjudgmental attention to whatever arises, including thoughts and feelings.  This means that difficult or powerful thoughts and feelings might arise in your practice.  If you’re someone who experiences intrusive or overwhelming thoughts, or if you deal with psychosis, or experience emotions powerful enough to be overwhelming, you might choose a different practice (Progressive Muscle Relaxation is wonderful for helping you relax), or try out the exercises in very small doses, with someone who can help you if the experiences become overwhelming. 

A second consideration is that, if you want it to be a positive presence in your life, you actually have to do the practices.  In my opinion, the benefit comes less from ideas about it or intellectual conceptions of mindfulness, and more from sitting down and actually paying attention to what’s going on in each moment. 

Another consideration is related to the first: it’s not all bliss.  When we sit down to pay attention to what’s going on inside and around us, we’ll quickly notice that not all of it is pleasant.  Put crudely, sometimes the present moment sucks.  We have aches and pains, our mind wanders, we can worry or plan or ruminate.  If it’s in our lives outside of meditation, it may also show up during meditation. 

Some potential benefits

This last consideration, counterintuitively, is the one that’s been the most positive and powerful for me.  When I have an unpleasant thought or a painful feeling, I generally want to distract myself from it or push it away.  It’s no fun to experience the difficult experiences or sensations that all of us have, and our reflexive reaction can often be to try to push them away or run away from them.  This reaction is understandable, but it’s not the only one we can use.  In mindfulness practice, when let’s say an itch appears, we might decide to just feel it and allow it to be there for a while.  Same with uncomfortable feelings. 

Let’s say anxiety arises while we’re meditating.  We may decide to just sit with that anxiety, feel what it feels like in our bodies, and bring our nonjudgmental, compassionate awareness to it in the same way as we pay attention to the breath.  Or, we can notice that anxiety, name it to ourselves, and then go back to paying attention to our breath.  What we’re practicing here, again and again, is the ability to not react to our experience in a knee-jerk way, but to respond in as wise and compassionate a way as we can.  We realize that anxiety is here for example, but we have a number of ways we can thoughtfully respond to it.  The result is that our anxiety isn’t running our lives as much; we are. 

By practicing this in smaller ways during meditation — living with an itch or bringing compassion to an uncomfortable feeling — we develop the ability to not react reflexively but to respond with wisdom and compassion to whatever arises.  This is training for responding with that same wisdom and compassion to whatever comes up in the rest of our lives and relationships.  To me, that’s one of the powerful gifts of mindfulness practice. 

The other big gift is the ability to experience our lives as they are happening.  Many of us live our lives in our heads, always thinking, and our experience of the world around us goes through the filter of our thoughts.  The result is that we’re often on auto-pilot–there but not really there.  Mindfulness practice allows us to actually experience life as it happens, rather than through the filter of our thoughts.  This has important implications as we realize that our time on earth is limited, and we never know when it might end.  For me, given these realities, I want to experience all of it, both the joys and the sorrows (though I’ll gladly take an extra helping of joys!).  Being really aware of each moment as it happens can be a challenge, and for most of us it doesn’t come naturally, but I think my practice has helped me to actually experience and live more of my life. 

In sum, while mindfulness is very trendy right now and there are some pretty watered-down versions of it out there, it’s been pretty helpful for me, and there’s lots of research to suggest that it can be helpful for other people too.  Each person is different, of course, and it may not be right for everyone, but it might be worth exploring a little more if you’re interested.