What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is typically perceived as an expectation of remaining calm, content, and/or unconditionally loving in various circumstances, i.e. meditation, yoga, eating, and perhaps all aspects of your life. This misconceived expectation that we ‘should’ be calm, content and unconditionally loving all day, every day, for the rest of our lives sets us up for perceived failure and turns us off from mindfulness altogether.
When we think of incorporating mindfulness into our daily lives, here is how we think it should look:
Yet we commonly find ourselves feeling like this most days:
If mindfulness is not about being calm, content, and/or unconditionally loving, what is it?
Mindfulness is what Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts, coined as ‘paying attention in a particular way, on purpose in the present moment, and non-judgmentally’. As we pay attention to the quality and content of our thoughts, bodily sensations, and emotions with kindness, we begin to notice the way we think about ourselves and the world around us. This noticing is a good thing!
Mindfulness is all-inclusive – we don’t leave out anything because we ‘don’t like it’. We invite into our present moment reality whatever arises in that moment, be it judgment, jealousy, anger, rage, sadness, boredom, or shame in a kind and welcoming way. This kind attention allows us to grow and transform.
Mindfulness is about being here now. Sounds trite, I know. Bear with me.
Check this out: Did you know that a Harvard research study stated that the mind wanders 46.9% of the time? You can read a short article here about it if you like.
Just think that half of the time our mind is somewhere else.
Back to kind attention – if we consciously apply kind attention on purpose to whatever arises in this moment – we strengthen the areas of our brain that allow us to transform and grow.
Imagine you just ate a bag of cookies or drank a bottle of wine or tripped over your own two feet trying to dance. What do you find you say to yourself? ‘Oh, I’m so bad. I better workout twice as hard. I better not eat dinner and starve myself all day’, or ‘I guess I just have two left feet. I’ll never be able to dance because I am such a klutz’. A huge percentage of the population holds a core belief, ‘I am not good enough’. When we think we are not good enough, we either refuse to face those challenges, or we do so after we’ve shamed ourselves into doing what we think we should do to ‘better’ our life. We think, somehow, this will change our life. This is not true. This type of thinking impedes our ability to change and grow.
From a physiological perspective, when we feel shame the amygdala activates and alerts our body that something is wrong and steps into fight or flight mode. The learning and growing part of our brain shuts down and we go into survival mode. When we choose mindfulness, a paying kind attention on purpose, we activate dopamine receptors that open the parts of our brain to allow for growth and transformation to occur. When these parts of our brain are ‘on’ it encourages us to accept and embrace these uncomfortable feelings until one day, we find ourselves able to fully accept how we feel without shaming ourselves into change.
The brain has a remarkable ability to be resilient and shape itself through learning and experience. It doesn’t matter how old we are or how set in our ways we have become. Every single person has the opportunity and capacity to grow and transform at any moment. It’s what neuroscience calls ‘neuroplasticity’ – without it, we would never be able to learn anything.
Research into mindfulness shows that it is good for your physical and psychological health. Mindfulness decreases stress and symptoms of anxiety and depression, helps you to sleep better, strengthens your immune function. Data showed that among undergraduate students, mindfulness lowered the frequency of negative automatic thoughts and an enhanced ability to let go of those thoughts (read the study here). Mindfulness improves academic performance for children, teens and adults, increases resilience, and more.
When we consciously apply mindfulness – this paying kind attention on purpose – we start to see that what we were looking for all along exists within us.