In short, mindfulness is the quality of being both aware and accepting of what is going on in your moment-to-moment experience of life. This concept may sound simple—and it is—but it can be difficult to put into practice. People are usually surprised to learn that they are anything but aware of their moment-to-moment experience throughout the day. Often we’re lost in some form of thought while we do something else with our bodies, like walk down the street. I’ll call this lack of present-moment awareness “mindlessness.”
There is much to be said about the perils of mindlessness. The brief explanation starts with the recognition of two things about our minds. First, left to their own devices, they tend to drive us in pursuit of a primitive and unattainable goal: avoid all unpleasantness and have only pleasant experiences. Second, given enough familiarity with a task, humans have a wonderful capacity to do just about anything without paying much attention. Whether it be walking, tying our shoes, driving, or chopping onions, our brains tend to exploit the ability to be mindless at every opportunity.
These patterns of thought and behavior were helpful from an evolutionary perspective, and still are. The ability to automate the activities of our daily lives leaves our minds freer to try to plot a course around future unpleasant experiences and toward more pleasant ones, by trying to learn from mistakes and foresee problems.
But, as everyone knows, there can be too much of a good thing. We return again and again to memories of negative events from the past and potential future scenarios that worry us. Sometimes our minds entertain us with pleasant thoughts or fantasies about the past and future too, as a means of escape from present-moment experiences that we don’t like. This mindless, ruminative state tends to be our primary mode of operation, usually without our control, consent, or even realization.
Our experience of life becomes entangled in our thoughts and, effectively, hijacked by them. We might replay or imagine events in our minds (and to an extent, experience them) as we walk down the street, oblivious to the pleasant warmth of the sun on our face. We may well arrive at our destination having missed much of the experience of our walk. Worse, if we've been lost in emotionally charged thoughts, then we may be left with negative feelings like sadness, anxiety, or regret. If this can happen during a walk to the store, imagine the implications of living most of your life disconnected in this way.
Furthermore, while we are mindless we abdicate control of our behavior to reactions conditioned over time to occur on autopilot, instead of having responses founded on presence and wisdom. Caught in this trap, we tend to make unwise decisions and engage in behaviors that lead us away from true, long-term happiness and can harm us, others, and our relationships.
So, the goal of mindfulness meditation is not to stop thinking, but rather to disentangle ourselves from our thoughts by practicing being aware of our moment-to-moment experience of life. By learning to turn toward and accept these moments, we can begin to condition our minds in a different way. Over time, we can appreciate positive events more fully, and loosen our resistance to the negative ones, including the inevitable loss of things we like. Resisting them only makes them feel worse.
In a more mindful state, we are better able to observe not only the physical events of our lives, but also to see our feelings, impulses, and thoughts—including the ones we have about ourselves—for the transitory phenomena that they are. With sustained practice we can improve our ability to respond wisely and intentionally to them instead of just reacting, which enables us to make better and healthier decisions in all areas of our lives. We can be happier and live more gracefully.
Origins of Mindfulness
Mindfulness meditation has its origins in ancient Buddhist meditative techniques. Healthcare and mental healthcare professionals began employing it in secular settings in the 1980s in the U.S., and this more or less marked the beginning of scientific research into mindfulness. Since then, researchers’ interest in mindfulness has skyrocketed, and scientific evidence of its efficacy is becoming more compelling.
It’s important to emphasize that, although mindfulness meditation derives from Buddhist teachings, there is nothing inherently religious about it. Qualities such as mindfulness, equanimity, and compassion occur naturally in humans. Mindfulness meditation is just a tool for uncovering and cultivating these and other wholesome qualities by learning how to pay attention to our lives and, by doing so, creating more peace and freedom in them. Many people find that mindfulness practice complements their other efforts to lead a healthy and happy life, regardless of what, if any, religious or spiritual beliefs they subscribe to.
Because of its portrayal in popular culture, many people assume that meditation means sitting cross-legged in a tranquil environment. Mindfulness meditation can be practiced this way. It can also be practiced while sitting in a chair, walking, eating, tying your shoes, washing the dishes, playing tennis, attending a concert, or doing any other activity. Mindfulness can be practiced while interacting with other people, and even if the interaction is emotionally charged. Since mindfulness is a state of mind, it can be cultivated and provide benefits in all areas of daily life.
Individuals may find certain types of formal and informal meditation techniques to work better for them than others. This is one reason why it’s very helpful to have a mindfulness instructor: so that he or she can assist you in personalizing your practice.
In the 1980s, researchers began studying the effects of mindfulness practice in medical settings for use in the reduction of stress and chronic pain. In recent years there has been exponential growth in the amount of research being conducted, and much more is still needed. However, to date, studies have found correlations between mindfulness practice and the following physical, psychological, and emotional benefits, to name a few:
The mounting evidence of the benefits of mindfulness practice has led to its expansion beyond medical and mental health applications. It is now increasingly accepted in mainstream society, including in schools and Fortune 500 companies (as discussed here and here) such as Apple, General Mills, Google, and Target, as a means of improving the work environment.
The practice of mindfulness meditation can produce many benefits on its own. However, even greater transformation can take place when mindfulness is integrated into your life and combined with other efforts, such as deepening an intellectual understanding of the ways we create distress in our lives, and attending to the social, physical, vocational, psychological, and ethical dimensions of them. Formal meditation and more mindful living in general support the development of better, more compassionate attitudes toward yourself and others, a healthier lifestyle and mental state, meaningful engagement in the world, and a life aligned with your truest nature.
Reading about the potential benefits of a more mindful life can only take you so far, because you can only achieve them through practice and direct experience, not through an intellectual understanding only, and certainly not through blind faith in someone else's assertions. Your effort to practice must ultimately flow from your own determination that it has merit in your life. So, give mindfulness meditation a try and see what you think!