What Is Mindfulness? (Includes Five Exercises Increase Mindfulness in Your Life)
One of the major current ideas for reducing stress, being happier and increasing focus in both spirituality and psychology is the concept of mindfulness.
But what is mindfulness? Why does mindfulness matter? How can mindfulness help you to be happier and healthier?
This post will answer all your burning questions on mindfulness. From the simple, "what is mindfulness?" to the answers to questions you may not even know enough to ask.
Let's get started...
Mindfulness is a practice that has been involved in both religious and secular traditions dating back thousands of years to its beginnings in early Eastern religion.
Translated from the Pali term "sati," mindfulness literally means "to remember" or "to bear in mind."
The pratice of mindfulness has its roots in Hinduism, Buddhism, and yoga, and more recently begun to skyrocket in popularity as a form of non-religious meditation.
Jon Kabat-Zinn was the first person to popularize mindful meditation in the western world with no religious affiliation.
Kabat-Zinn was known for his work as a scientist, writer, and meditation teacher, prior to his success with mindfulness. Due to his common sense approach to mindfulness, he was able to bring it into the mainstream of western society and medicine.
Aside from writing numerous books, and teaching mindfulness in his own provate classes, Kabat-Zinn also trained groups of professionals including judges, CEOs, business leaders, clergy, lawyers, and Olympic athletes in mindfulness. Further making the idea of mindfulness and mindful living a groundswell idea.
Jon Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness by saying, “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” This suggests that the mind is fully attending to the current moment and one's surroundings.
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At first glance, this may seem trivial. What is so important about paying attention and not being judgemental?
The reason this matters is because how most peoples minds often work.
We often get easily distracted from the matter at hand. Our minds wander and we think of different things. We can begin to obsess over past thoughts, anxieties, stresses or worries. All of this when we are supposed to be focusing on the issue at hand.
The exact amount of lack of focus varies from person to person. But without constant fresh stimuli even the strongest willed people will have their minds begin to wander onto other memories, problems or issues fairly quickly.
Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.
Author & Meditation Teacher
The Benefits of Mindfulness
Research on mindfulness has identified several benefits. Let's take a look at all of them and see how they help our "mindful person".
Mindfulness meditation allows you to catch yourself thinking the same negative thoughts over and over, to observe these thoughts, and then to let them go. Studies have actually shown that the trait mindfulness and rumination have a negative correlation with each other.
Mindfulness meditation helps you release yourself from this negative thinking and live healthily in the current moment.
Let's look at a concrete example of this form of mindful thinking.
As you leave work your boss stops you to give you negative feedback on a project you did.
This feedback will likely bother you during the drive home and may keep popping into your mind through the evening. While your spouse and children discuss their days, all your mind can do is replay the scene of your boss giving you negative feedback.
This is ruminating. By not being able to get the one issue out of your mind you build up your stress and do no get the full benefits of relaxing time spent with your family. However, if you are able to practice mindfulness, you box out the negative thinking, be fully "there" for your family mentally and still enjoy your evening.
Stress is a primitive, "fight or flight" reaction. When faced with something that has negative potential we want to either take it on or get away from it. However, modern society is not that simple.
The things we "take on" or "fight" might be accomplished over weeks or even months time. This means your "fight or flight" or "stress" may keep triggering until your mind is satisfied that it is, "mission accomplished".
To further complicate matters, .iIf you are under stress, you have a hard time seeing the difference between a problem-solving thought and a worry that comes with no benefit.
Part of being under stress is dealing with the distracting thoughts that overpower the actual problem solving thinking. The simple solution to this issue of stress is mindfulness.
Mindfulness can help you get rid of your unproductive worries by training your brain to work through those thoughts in a different way.
You may think, “I’m not making enough money. I might lose my house and my car if I don't start making more, and my life will fall apart.”
Mindfulness here teaches you to see that, “I'm familiar with this recurring thought. But it’s just a thought and not a part of my inner self.” This allows you to stop "worrying" about the issue and to actually do things to improve your situation.
Here are some other tips on and benefits of eliminating negative thoughts and relieving anxiety.
Boosts Working Memory
Being mindful reduces mind wandering, which results in better performance. Studies have also shown that mindfulness boosts working memory.
Scientists assigned 48 students to either a class that incorporated mindfulness or a class that only taught fundamental topics in nutrition, both taught by experienced professionals.
Prior to the classes’ beginnings, the students took two tests, during which time their mind-wandering was measured: a modified verbal reasoning test from the GRE and a working memory capacity test.
After the classes were completed, the students were tested again. The students taking the class that incorporated mindfulness significantly improved on the verbal GRE test and the working memory capacity test. These students also showed decreased mind wandering during testing. However, none of these changes occurred in the class that only taught fundamental topics. This shows that if you are able to fully pay attention to what you are doing, your memory will improve.
Distraction is the greatest enemy of productivity. While we are trying to do one task, our minds veer off and starts thinking about 10 other tasks that are still waiting to be completed. This leads to a quick check of emails, which then opens the door to even more distractions. This lack of focus creates the monkey mind that prevents us from getting things done.
Mindfulness is able to get in the way of these distractions and say:
“Stop. Focus on the here and now. Finish what needs to be accomplished.”
Less Emotional Reactivity
Practicing mindfulness lets you regulate your emotional responses.
This is because mindfulness training teaches the brain to be less reactive. A mindful person does not jump on new thoughts but calmly sticks to finishing the first idea they are tackling. This allows you to take new thoughts one at a time and give them the attention they are due, rather than reacting without thought.
.Additionally, rather than trying to avoid negative emotions, these opportunities can be used to break away from reactive patterns that limit our growth.
Mindfulness allows you to have some space between a trigger and your emotional response. You are able to stop and take a breath rather than immediately responding. For example, if your mind quickly moves toward an irrelevant email while you are working on a project, rather than stopping to check your email, you are able to pause and choose your response to this thought.
More Cognitive Flexibility
Studies have looked at the relationship between mindfulness and mental flexibility by requiring participants to use three hypothetical jars to get a specific amount of liquid. Initial problems could be solved with the same complex formula, but later problems could be solved by an additional simple formula.
A mental rigidity score was given to participants through their perseverance of the complex formula. Experienced mindfulness meditators consistently received significantly lower rigidity scores than people unfamiliar with mindfulness. The researchers concluded that mindfulness meditation increases mental flexibility through the ability to notice new ways of responding to situations, regardless of past experiences.
While mindfulness is often taught as a solitary practice, it can also help improve relationships. The mental capacities that are learned, such as attention, acceptance, awareness, loving-kindness, and self-regulation, translate well into relationships.
Specifically, studies have found that people who engage in regular mindfulness practices have both structural and functional changes in their brain regions that are linked to increased empathy, compassion, and kindness.
Enhanced Self-Insight, Morality, Intuition, and Fear Modulation
These processes are controlled by the brain's middle prefrontal lobe area, and all refer to our ability to self-soothe, look at the bigger picture, and manage our own thoughts and feelings.
Having a heightened awareness of your thoughts and feelings allows you to pause before taking action in response to a situation. For example, while you may have a fear of speaking in public because you previously had a bad experience, if you practice mindfulness, you can train your brain to recognize that your past experience has no influence on the present.
Improved Immune System Function
It might surprise people who are looking to find out more about mindfulness that not only does mindfulness affect the mind, but there is also a positive effect on the body.
A recent review of 20 trials looking at the effects of mindfulness on the immune system found that mindfulness:
- Reduced inflammation that can lead to decreased immune function and disease
- Increased CD-4 cells that work to destroy infections
- Increased telomerase activity, which stabilizes chromosomes and prevents them from deteriorating
Mindfulness has a direct impact on brain structures that are responsible for communicating with the immune system. Specifically, it increases activity in the prefrontal cortex, right hippocampus, and right anterior insula, which act as the immune system’s command center. When these are stimulated through mindfulness, the immune system is more effective.
There is recent scientific research that shows mindfulness can support your well-being at many different stages of life.
Among these benefits to your well-being is the fact that mindfulness decreases the likelihood of depression. Along with some other successful methods, mindfulness is an effective practice for remaining happy throughout life and staving off negative emotions.
For example, people who are at risk for depression deal with a lot of negative thoughts about themselves, which can turn into a depressive relapse. Practicing mindfulness helps people recognize what is happening, handle those thoughts in a different way, and respond to them with compassion and composure. This helps them to plow through depressive episodes.
Reduced Psychological Distress
Evaluations have shown that mindfulness reduces psychological distress. In this study, call center employees had a brief mindfulness-based intervention by listening to two guided meditation sessions every day for five consecutive weeks. The study used tests that are designed to assess any changes in mindfulness and psychological distress over the course of the intervention.
The results of this study showed that mindfulness increased when people listened to the meditation sessions, and psychological distress decreased. This suggests that there is an inverse relationship between mindfulness and psychological distress.
Increased Information Processing Speed
Mindfulness strengthens the neural circuitry in the brain that is associated with emotional control. It trains you to focus on your thoughts without judgment. Having this control over your own mind shares a similar neural circuitry with information processing. The emotional circuitry in the brain that mindfulness taps into can also be stimulated to enhance cognitive control.
For instance, if you practice mindfulness and are able to take the driver's seat when it comes to your thoughts, this strength will spill over into your ability to process information as it is received. So, the next time someone quickly rattles off a phone number to you, you will be more likely to be able to retain that information.
Decreased Task Effort and Having Thoughts That Are Unrelated to the Task at Hand
What if you could accomplish your goals faster and with less effort? Learning how to be mindful quickly, and being able to use these tools to lessen intrusive thoughts that get in the way of your productivity, is likely to lead to success.
What if you could finish a project that is due in a week, but do so in just one afternoon? Practicing mindfulness can help you achieve this success by allowing you to focus on your work and ignore outside influencers.
How to Practice Mindfulness
There are many ways you can use to learn how to live a more mindful life. Some great places to start include:
1. Taking Short Breaks
Taking short breaks while you are working can bring you back down to earth. Breaks are calming. They. help increase your job performance. Even taking only a moments break to organize your thoughts will help to improve your focus once you return to work.
2. Exercise Regularly
Exercise has so many benefits for overall health, and this certainly includes mental health. Getting regular exercise and practicing mindfulness go hand in hand for living an overall healthy and productive life.
3. Search For and Appreciate the Good in Others
You can use your non-judgmental thoughts to find the beauty in other people. When you practice mindfulness, you will be able to find the good in every situation rather than assuming the worst.
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4. Actively Focus on the Positive
Actively focusing on the positive also leads to seeing the good in every situation, and living in the moment.
5. Make time for a 10-minute mindfulness practice and stay consistent.
The more you are able to practice mindfulness throughout the day, the sooner it will become second nature to you.
Learning mindfulness is a journey that takes time to master. Don’t beat yourself up if it’s taking you a while to develop your mindfulness habit. Keep working on it, and learn from your own experiences. It takes time and practice to truly learn how to live a mindful life.
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