Mindfulness: Is This Buzzword All It’s Cracked Up To Be?
I don’t know about you but I see and hear the word “mindful” everywhere! This buzzword is losing all meaning for me…I’m becoming numb to it. Google it and you’ll get loads of websites…classes, trips, quotes, apps, mindful eating, how to integrate mindfulness in the workplace, I even found a “mindful ski and snowboard camp”, and the Mindful Brewing Company. Wow.
Don’t tell my health and wellness colleagues this….but when I hear that word I instantly think: whatever we have to be mindful of is going to be slow and boring. It also conjures up memories of being nagged by a grownup, “be mindful of your manners!” (insert eye-roll).
A Tiny Bit of History
Okay so what is mindfulness and should we care? Although a current buzzword, mindfulness has been practiced for thousands of years and is rooted in a number of religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and most notably Buddhism. In Buddhism there are seven factors of awakening that lead to enlightenment, the first of which is Sati, or mindfulness. The story of the English word “mindfulness” allegedly goes like this: in the late 19th century a British guy named Thomas William Rhys Davids was learning Pali (the language of Theravada, the most ancient branch of Buddhism) and came up with “mindfulness” as the most approximate translation of Sati which roughly means “memory of the present”…which I think is kind of neat.
The Father of Western Mindfulness
Fast forward to 1979, when the Father of Western Mindfulness, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, founded the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at UMass Medical Center. Since 1979 Dr. Kabat-Zinn has since taught more than 25,000 MBSR students! The program has even been brought to more than 250 other hospitals around the country and countless clinical studies have been conducted on the medical benefits and clinical applications. Dr. Kabat-Zinn is probably the reason we hear so much about mindfulness today.
But What Is It?
The common definition of mindfulness is to be in the present moment, to slow down and notice your senses and the task at hand; a state of awareness. Psychologist Scott Bishop and a bunch of other science-y people worked on identifying the components of mindfulness so that it might be studied properly. According to these guys, mindfulness includes the theory of self-regulation…
Stay with me here, this is kind of nerdy but it’s totally cool… as humans, our minds are constantly comparing what is to what’s desired. When there’s a gap between the two (which there almost always is, when you think about it)…our minds will fixate on the gap to figure out a way to close it. And where this gap (or discrepancy) exists, so do negative emotions such as fear and frustration (the Buddhists would probably also include “cravings”). Our nature is to move the present state of what is, closer to what’s desired through behavior, action, and thought in order to get closer to our goals and preferences. BUT, “if the discrepancy is reduced, then the mind can exit this mode, and a feeling of well-being will follow” (Bishop et al., p. 236). Ah-ha!
So, the practice of mindfulness can help break the reactive patterns we tend to automatically create for ourselves…it can snap us out of mindlessly moving through life. “I’ll be happy when I lose 10 pounds”, “I’ll be happy when the waitress brings our food”, “I’ll be happy when the workday is over”, “I’ll be happy when…”. Or, maybe worse, worrying about things that haven’t even happened yet.
So yeah, let’s focus on right now, hey!
Here’s a nice Introduction to Mindfulness video that really describes the idea of mindfulness…it’s just 9 minutes and totally worth watching.
Aside from feeling more aware and more content in our daily lives what else can we expect form a mindfulness practice? According to the American Psychological Association, here are the emotional benefits of mindfulness:
More adaptive to stressful responses
Increased relationship satisfaction
And there are even more benefits, according to the volumes of research conducted on MBSR, which include helping to treat myriad conditions (in combination with, not as a substitute for, medical care) such as: pain, headaches, asthma, gastro-intestinal distress, cancer, chronic illness, eating disturbances, high blood pressure, PTSD, skin problems, sleep problems, fibromyalgia, and on and on. Discover more about MBSR here.
There are countless ways to get your mindfulness groove on. Just Google it and you’ll find lots. You can even enroll in MBSR training…I’m thinking about it! But right now, try this…
Wherever you are, pause and engage your senses. Feel your feet in your shoes, scan your body and acknowledge how you feel, then notice what’s around you. What do you hear, feel, smell, see, or even taste? Really wake up and notice the sensory experiences…invite them in, notice what’s going on around you and your place in it. Now get back to what you were doing…whether it’s cooking, walking, playing with the kids, or working at the office…and pay attention. Get absorbed by what you are doing now, not what you have to do later.
Try a “changing seasons” experiment, now’s the perfect time! Pick a place you pass by frequently…maybe it’s a section of your yard, a path you walk with your dog, or a street you take to get to work. Notice what you see….movement, plant-life, how many colors, what are the smells? Each time you pass by this chosen place notice the changes that you see throughout the month of April. Notice the colors changing, new plant life budding, change in the air, temperature, smell, etc. Maybe even take photos of the changes that you see. This experiment might help remind you that life is happening right this second and it’s important to notice it…because life will keep on happening, it doesn’t wait for us to pay attention.
Okay so in the end, after reading up on mindfulness, I’ve decided it’s not a total snooze but the complete opposite. Mindfulness (really though, I wish there was another word because the trendiness of it reminds me of the sun-dried tomato craze of the late 90’s) aims to enliven our senses and wake us up from our stupor…it invites the richness and abundance of life into our ordinary day so that we no longer need to “get through” until whatever future event in order to feel a sense of peace and contentment.
It invites us to explore what is without judgment, with our full attention, and to experience life on purpose…how utterly refreshing.
I’ve carried this Sanskrit poem with me since high school and I think it fits perfectly with the here-and-now concept of mindfulness…
Listen to the salutation to the dawn,
Look to this day for it is life, the very life of life,
In its brief course lie all the verities and realities of our existence.
The bliss of growth, the splendor of beauty,
For yesterday is but a dream and tomorrow is only a vision,
But today well spent makes every yesterday a dream of happiness
and every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well therefore to this day.
Such is the salutation to the dawn.
Batchelor, S. (1997). Buddhism without beliefs: A contemporary guide to awakening. New York, NY: Penguin Group
Bishop, S. R., Lau, M., Shapiro, S., Carlson, L., Anderson, N. D., Carmody, J.,…Devins, G. (2004). Mindfulness: A proposed operational definition. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice 11(3): 230-241. doi: 10.1093/clipsy/bph077
Davis, D. & Hayes, J. (2012, July/Aug). What are the benefits of mindfulness. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/07-08/ce-corner
Heffernan, V. (2015, Apr 15). The muddied meaning of ‘mindfulness’. The New York Times, Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/19/magazine/the-muddied-meaning-of-mindfulness.html
History of MBSR. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.umassmed.edu/cfm/mindfulness-based-programs/mbsr-courses/about-mbsr/history-of-mbsr/
Selva, J. (2019, Jan 10). History of mindfulness: From East to West and from religion to science. Positive Psychology Program, Retrieved from https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/history-of-mindfulness/