Mindfulness is all the rage. But what is it exactly?

Why should we aspire to greater mindfulness? And how do we actually achieve it?

Mindfulness is the new rage. I see this word everywhere — in newspaper and magazine articles and on TV. There are now a multitude of mindfulness apps. But what is it? What does it really mean? Why should we aspire to greater mindfulness? How do we become more mindful?

The phrase was popularized by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., a psychologist who was a long-time meditator. He developed a training program called “Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction” which he introduced at the medical center where he worked. It’s a good program—focusing on time tested methods of relaxation. He didn’t invent anything—he borrowed, as many of us do, from several time-honored traditions.

His introduction to the concept of mindfulness begins with the simple sensory experience of an almond—becoming aware of its taste, texture, and feel. Much of our experience of the world around us comes from our senses—taste, touch, smell, sounds, and sights. We also experience sensation of internal states—muscles and organs. To some degree, we’re continually monitoring our bodies for potential problems. We’re also scrutinizing our external environment for possible threats or opportunities. We’re a very visual species and so what we see often takes center stage. But sensations often take second place to the productions of our mind—- judgements (do we like or love what we taste?), memory (I’ve tasted this before.), future thinking (when am I going to have lunch?), or random thoughts that continually pop into our heads. So, we are often somewhere else other than where we are.

Mindfulness integrates both attention and awareness. Are we paying attention to sensation? — which always occurs in the present. Are we aware of what our mind is up to? The combination of attention and awareness creates the opportunity to respond in different ways. For example, this morning my wife criticized me for recycling a magazine she wanted to read. I reacted—my body tensed into the familiar fight or flight reaction. I felt attacked—I wanted to justify my actions. But in that moment, as I became aware of my bodily sensations, my thoughts, and my feelings, I chose my response— “I’m sorry. I’ll be more careful in the future” I said. The end.

Frequently our “response” is the same as our “reaction”. We aren’t aware that there’s a gap between what we think and feel and what we do. The missing ingredient, in mediating our reaction, is attention and awareness—aka mindfulness.

Nurturing attention and awareness of our total experience is a skill. And like any skill, it requires practice. Even professional tennis players, with killer serves, spend hours a week practicing their serve until it becomes a muscle memory.

How does meditation promote the mind/muscle memory of mindfulness? In meditation, we concentrate our attention on our breath. When our mind wanders, which it will, we re-focus our attention on our breath. Over time, with practice, we learn how to better regulate our attention. This practice promotes the experience of stillness which enables us to become more aware of our thoughts and feelings. A calm lake, with no wind, is like a mirror. It reflects the sky above perfectly. Our minds become more and more like that calm body of water.

Too often, we think of meditation and breathing exercises as first aid for our mind and body when we feel distressed. But for it to be effective, we must practice the skill in our daily life, so when we need it, the muscle memory can respond.

Start with a meditation app—there are many. But ultimately, it’s very useful to establish a regular meditation practice that you do on your own, without being guided.

I started meditating regularly when I first began the practice of Aikido, a Japanese martial art, in 1973. I’ve been practicing regularly since then, for almost 50 years. These years of meditation have contributed to my own development as a person and as a psychologist. I’ve learned to appreciate the value of stillness in the middle of our crazy busy lives. It has helped me keep my peace during the pandemic.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www. everettclinic.com/ healthwellness-library.html.

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