Whether you're a veteran meditator looking to enhance your repertoire of wellness techniques, or a beginner looking for a meditative practice that's a right fit, mindfulness meditation is a great place to start. Here's a look at what it is, where it came from and how it evolved, what its benefits are, as well as a look at some helpful tips to get you started.
What is Mindfulness?
In an interview with Maia Szalavitz, health writer and neuroscience journalist for Time.com, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn says, "My working definition of mindfulness is the awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose in the present moment - non-judgmentally. And the non-judgmental part is the kicker, because we've got ideas and opinions about virtually everything."
He also goes a little deeper with his explanation, defining how it's those unconscious opinions that go on behind the scenes that, in the end, determine our habitual behaviors.
To further the definition, let's take a look at the opposite of what mindfulness is - mindlessness. The most basic way to describe mindlessness is how we tend to go on autopilot, how we zone out and go about our days without putting much thought to why exactly we do the things we do.
To help illustrate this point, consider those who suffer from emotional eating disorders. Many of them consume food, not because they are hungry, but rather because they are automatically reacting to an emotional stimulus.
The first part of the solution to this problem is for these sufferers to recognize the thought patterns that lie behind their behaviors - to realize the connection between the two - and begin to question those actions.
What Mindfulness Is Not
While taking a look at what mindfulness meditation is, it may also help to define what it is not. Mindfulness is not a religious practice, though this isn't to say that a person can't enhance his or her spirituality by using it.
The transition of mindfulness from a Buddhist practice to a mainstream medical practice is mostly due to the efforts of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist who studied at MIT and started the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program at the Massachusetts University Medical Center.
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What Mindfulness is used For
There is a wide range of practical applications for, and benefits of, mindfulness meditation. Many people use these techniques to reduce stress, promote tranquility, and enhance their overall well-being.
Medical professionals use them to help treat anxiety, depression, pain, sleep disorders, and other illnesses.
Many athletes even use mindfulness as a way to further enhance their athletic performance by coupling mindfulness meditation techniques with the practice of creative imagery.
To add to the impressive list of benefits, the Massachusetts University Medical Center's website boasts "three decades of published research" that shows additional benefits to include:
- An improved ability to relax and manage stress levels.
- More energy and exuberance
- Long-term decreases in psychological and physiological symptoms
- An enhanced ability to not only cope with pain, but actually reduce it as well
How to Begin Practicing Mindfulness
Mindfulness, although difficult to completely master, is very easy to begin practicing. Essentially, it's a free practice that requires nothing; all you need is a few minutes of your time and an open mind.
You should note that there are no hard and fast rules to follow. The length, location, specific techniques, and many other variables can be changed based on your own personal preference as you see fit.
With that said, however, the following beginner tips should get you headed in the right direction. An article on Psychology Today breaks this style of meditation down into three main components: body, breath, and thought. It is these three areas that you should be mindful of as you meditate.
First, focus on your bodily sensations. Get comfortable in a relaxing environment. Take notice of things like whether you are comfortable, warm, cold, and so on.
Next, concentrate on your breathing. Unlike other forms of meditation, with mindfulness, your goal is not to change your breathing patterns. All you want to do is simply take notice of your breathing exactly as it is.
Finally, bring your attention to your thoughts. As best as you can, try to stay in the present, but don't be alarmed if you notice your thoughts wandering. In fact, you should expect it.
When they do wonder, just gently bring your attention back to the present without judging. Your goal isn't to stop yourself from thinking, but rather to notice how, where, and when you mind wanders.