“Mindfulness is way of befriending ourselves and our experience” – Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn
According to Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn, “Mindfulness is the practice of focusing awareness by paying attention to the present moment with openness, curiosity and without judgement.”1 Mindfulness, therefore, is the process of paying attention to what is happening. This includes our senses i.e., wheat we see, hear, taste, smell or touch and our inner world of thoughts and emotions. By practicing mindfulness, we are developing our ability to be more present. The key qualities in mindfulness are openness and curiosity. Non-judgement refers to acknowledging our thoughts and emotions without labelling them as negative, positive, or otherwise. Paying attention to our current state and being present in the moment can be very empowering. Our awareness is focussed on the here and now.
Mindfulness in a not a recent idea. The concept of mindfulness is core to Buddhism and can be traced as far back as the fifth century BC, when it appeared in the 37 factors of Enlightenment – the Buddha’s most essential teachings. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, is often credited with stimulating the west’s interest in mindfulness. A growing body of recent research points to the numerous benefits of mindfulness practice.
We live in a fast paced society which contributes to and exacerbates everyday stress. Our lives are increasingly busy and full. Many studies show that practicing mindfulness can reduces stress. Mindfulness-based therapy may be useful in altering affective and cognitive processes that underlie multiple clinical issues. Mindfulness can also lower the levels of cortisol, which helps us feel more relaxed.2 Whilst mindfulness will not make the stressors in our life disappear, it certainly can help us to respond calmly to stressful events. Once we start managing our stressors effectively, we automatically experience less stress itself.
Mindfulness helps train our mind to focus on the present, making us less likely to ruminate on anxious thoughts.3 Most of our anxiety is a result of overthinking. Some thoughts cause anxiety and our natural urge is to try and make things better by thinking our way out of it. As we try and control or fix our situation, our anxiety only becomes worse. Mindfulness helps us to be observant of our thoughts without getting involved and thus keeps us grounded in the present. Lastly, studies have also found that MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) can help those with anxiety calm their minds.4
Improved Focus and Concentration
Mindfulness can improve concentration on other tasks in daily life. Researchers have found that brief mindfulness training can lead to enhanced ability to sustain attention. There are also benefits to working memory, executive functioning, and visuo-spatial processing.5 Mindfulness also affects our ability to suppress distracting information. Better attention is directly correlated with cognitive flexibility and attentional functioning. Mindfulness also is one of the best ways to control and regulate our attention.
Increased brain gray matter.
Another surprising finding is that mindfulness appears to increase gray matter in the brain. A controlled longitudinal study investigated pre-and post-changes to gray matter that were attributed to participation in MBSR. Researchers found that increases in gray matter concentration occurred in the regions of the brain that are involved in memory and learning processes, regulation of emotion, self-referential processing and taking perspective.6
Increased cognitive flexibility
In addition to helping people become lease reactive, mindfulness can also them give them greater cognitive flexibility. People who practice mindfulness appear to develop the skill of self-observation, which neurologically engages automatic pathways that were created by prior learning and enables present-moment input to be integrated in a new way.7 Mindfulness also activates the brain region associated with more adaptive responses to stressful or negative situations.
Improved empathy and benevolence for others
The great exiled Tibetan leader Dalai Lama often talks about how mindfulness contributes to him remaining kind-hearted and compassionate despite everything that has happened in his life. Studies have shown that even a brief mindfulness intervention made participants 50% more compassionate. Regular compassion meditation practitioners showed more brain activity in regions linked with empathy.
Increased resilience and equanimity
Richie Davidson(neuroscientist) and Paul Ekman (world leading researcher on emotions) – performed series of studies on Lama Oser (right hand man of The Dalai Lama). He is a European monk with over 30 years of mindfulness experience. The researchers found that his left-to-right prefrontal cortex activity ratio asymmetry indicated unusually high levels of equanimity, well-being, and resilience to setbacks all of which are largely attributed to his discipline of mindfulness.
Being mindful makes it easier for us to pay attention to the pleasures in life as they occur. As such by focussing on the here and now, we are less likely to get caught up in worries about the future or regrets over the past and are better able to form deep connection with others.
For me personally, a regular mindfulness practice has made a huge difference. I feel a sense of space in my mind every time I practice mindfulness. When friends and family ask me to describe this feeling I tell them that before I started my daily mindfulness practice my mind was similar to a messy room with things scattered all over the floor. These days it feels more like a library where all the books are arranged in bookcases.
Please note that it is probably not huge deal if your home mindfulness practice does not resemble any of the above results from clinical trials. Sometimes it is best to think about mindfulness in the same way as other things that make us feel good i.e., an early morning walk, or relaxing with a good book. Mindfulness in general is an extremely helpful tool as we look for ways to de-stress, learn more about ourselves, and lean toward mental well-being. The risks of practicing mindfulness are minimal, and all the evidence points to positive impacts such as being less reactive, less stressed and feeling better overall.
- Kabat-Zinn, J. Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. 1994. London: Piatkus.
- Turakitwanakan W, Mekseepralard C, Busarakumtragul P. Effects of mindfulness meditation on serum cortisol of medical students. J Med Assoc Thai. 2013;96 Suppl 1:S90-S95.
- Goyal M, Singh S, Sibinga EMS, et al. Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-being: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Intern Med. 2014;174(3):357–368. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.13018
- Niazi AK, Niazi SK. Mindfulness-based stress reduction: a non-pharmacological approach for chronic illnesses. N Am J Med Sci. 2011;3(1):20-23. doi:10.4297/najms.2011.320
- Zedian F, Johnson SK, Diamond B, David Z, Goolkasian P, Mindfulness meditation improves cognition: Evidence of brief mental training. 2010. 19(2): 597-605
- Holzel K, Carmody J, Vangel M, Congleton C, Yeramsetti SM, Gard T, Lazar SW, Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. 2011. 191(1): 36-43
- Siegel DJ. Mindfulness training and neural integration: differentiation of distinct streams of awareness and the cultivation of well-being. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2007;2(4):259-263. doi:10.1093/scan/nsm034