Mindfulness is a way of being which involves bringing awareness to the unfolding of present experience, moment to moment, with curiosity, openness and acceptance. It is not a set of techniques to be learned to escape unpleasant feelings, a relaxation exercise, or a goal to be reached, but rather an approach to life that can help us respond more skilfully even when challenging experiences do occur.
Mindfulness is an integrative, mind-body based approach that helps us change the way we think and feel about our experiences, especially stressful experiences. It involves paying attention to our thoughts and feelings so we become more aware of them, less enmeshed in them, and better able to manage them.
It is described as an, ‘awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment’ (Jon Kabat-Zinn, 2007). Although commonly associated with Buddhism, developments in psychology and neuroscience support mindfulness as being an inherent part of the human mind that can be developed and enhanced through secular meditative practice.
Practice rather than theory!
Until recently, mindfulness has been a relatively unfamiliar concept in much of our culture. Happily this is now changing with no shortage of mindfulness books and research readily available. Whilst such books can offer helpful guidance they are not a replacement for the actual practice of mindfulness.
Whilst we may experience impromptu moments of mindfulness, for example stopping to notice and appreciate a sunset, a formal practice offers us the opportunity to develop awareness more consciously, allowing us to live life more fully.
Mindfulness involves a process of becoming more aware and accepting towards all our experiences including the unpleasant ones. This takes on-going practice and commitment. It may seem counterintuitive at first, because it involves the idea of allowing and turning towards an unpleasant experience, rather than trying to get rid of or control it.
It is not a passive process but rather a kindhearted and intentional engagement of wakefulness. With sustained practice, it is possible to see the many ways we get hijacked by wishing things to be different from what is actually present.
Evidence for Mindfulness
Mindfulness has been the subject of growing attention and interest in recent years, thanks to a rapidly expanding evidence base. This demonstrates it can be helpful for many mental and physical health problems, such as stress, anxiety, high blood pressure, IBS, CFS/ME, fibromyalgia and depression, in addition to promoting general physical and emotional wellbeing (Mindfulness Research, 2011).