Many of us by now have likely heard of the term “mindfulness.” It seems like every 5th book on the psychology and self-help shelves has the word mindfulness in the title. There’s “Mindfulness in Plain English,” “Mindfulness for Beginners,” “The Mindful Way Through Depression,” “The Mindfulness Prescription for Adult ADHD,” and so on.
Why is this the case? Why is there such hype around it lately? What is mindfulness all about?
There are two very good reasons for the burgeoning of mindfulness-based literature on the book shelves, in magazines, in newspaper articles, and in scholarly and scientific journals.
First, mindfulness is a deceptively simple yet very profound principle and practice. Living mindfully has been shown to help people find greater peace, bigger joy, less stress, more sound sleep, healthier eating habits, less addiction, better concentration, and more fulfilling relationships. Recent research has also shown that the brain literally rewires itself for less stress and greater joy as people train their minds in mindfulness.
Second, research is increasingly showing that anyone can learn it, cultivate it, and benefit from it. In fact, children as young as 4 are learning and benefitting from mindfulness training within school curricula (delivered by programs such as InnerKids and MindUP). Mindfulness is being brought to the workforce for less stress and greater productivity, to those suffering from cancer and chronic pain, to those struggling with anxiety and depression, to those with ADHD and other executive function deficits, to parents and children seeking more harmonious relationships, to couples seeking more closeness and less conflict, and to college students seeking less stress, better focus, and greater joy during their college experience. The list goes on and on.
So what is this mysterious thing called mindfulness?
What is Mindfulness?
At its core, mindfulness is the art of paying attention. At first blush, this may seem like a boring prospect. But if we dive deeper and explore a bit, we may notice some very interesting and curious things about mindfulness and how it can truly enhance the quality of everyone’s everyday lives.
One useful way of finding out what mindfulness is all about is to explore its polar opposite: “automatic pilot.” Here are few examples:
- A car cuts you off, and you immediately and quite automatically scream: “You $%7#ing $#@*#&!”
- You are talking to a friend, partner, or family member, and they are getting increasingly irritated that you can’t just focus on what they are saying. Your mind just keeps drifting. You might be able to repeat a few sentences of what they said, but you simply weren’t present.
- You are at a party and someone looks in your direction with an awkward glance. You immediately feel embarrassed and then wonder what is wrong with the outfit you chose to wear. You have a strong urge to leave the party and start planning how to avoid this person for the rest of the evening.
- You are happily listening to your iPod or some other smart technology, and you almost get hit by car while crossing the street.
These are just a few examples of being in autopilot mode, a mode of living that is more like a trance state than anything else. And no one is immune to it.
By trance I mean that we have “checked/zoned out” from the actual events or experiences of what is happening right here, right now. Instead, we might be caught up in our own thoughts, usually of the past or of the future. We might be so overly focused on something (like the music we are listening to on our iPod) that we lose awareness of anything else going on around us. Or we might be so used to simply reacting (with very little thoughtfulness) to our own emotions or to the situation at hand.
There is actually some new evidence that our minds, when not asked to do anything in particular (the “default mode”), gravitate much of the time toward what will be or what has been.
So what is so bad about planning our day, our week, or desperately needed vacation? What’s so harmful about remembering the past? Nothing inherently. But human beings spend A LOT of time in those two “places” or points in time.
When we are ruminating about something that has already happened, we are not in the here and now, participating in life as it is actually happening. We are lost in the past. And when we are constantly speculating or worrying about our future, this necessarily means that we are often not actually showing up, with full, vital presence, to the moments at hand.
In metaphorical terms, when our thoughts and emotions often travel down past or future grooves, these grooves become more deeply worn. It becomes “easier” and “more natural” for our minds to slide down such paths, even outside of our awareness. (A stream doesn’t have to think about which direction it will flow. It flows down grooves in the earth that have already been carved).
But when we train our minds and bodies to show up in the present moment (in particular ways), we begin to carve out new grooves for our minds. Our thoughts no longer automatically flow down the same old past or future grooves. We are laying down new and healthy pathways.
The Present Moment
When we truly show up and are present in the here and now, we learn so much more about the situation and our reactions to these situations and about the people we are with and our reactions to those people. And, as one Harvard University-based study indicates, when we are present and fully engaged in what are doing at those moments (even if it is somewhat unpleasant), we are generally better off and happier in the long-run. It is actually when we are lost in the future or past or longing for some different version of the present moment that we suffer more greatly.
The benefits of “being mindful” may seem too good to be true or perhaps a little confusing at this point. For example, why would participating in the present moment, when the present moment is unpleasant, really help us? If we are yelling at our children “in the present moment,” is this really a good thing? That doesn’t make sense, does it?
No, it doesn’t all add up in the way we might be thinking. That’s why we need to dive even more deeply into mindfulness and explore the mental attitudes that can be cultivated and integrated into the practice of living in the present moment.
Check out What is Mindfulness? Diving More Deeply to explore more about what mindfulness is (and isn’t), how to strengthen it, and how to reduce unnecessary suffering in your life.
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