What is Mindfulness Anyway?

Elizabeth Shein

mindfulness, mindfulness practice, mental health, breath, breathing, well-being, self-care, meditation

More and more, I hear people saying they want to try mindfulness. There has been a huge surge of interest in it. If you google “mindfulness,” you will get almost 50 million hits. But what is mindfulness anyway?

Mindfulness is a pretty straightforward word. It suggests that the mind is fully paying attention to what is happening, what you are doing, and the space you are moving through. Although mindfulness sounds simple, it’s not always easy.

We all have a tendency to lose touch with the present. Our minds drift to obsessive thoughts about something that just happened, concerns about the past, or worries about the future. This creates anxiety and reduces our ability to enjoy or deal with what is happening in the present moment.

There are slight variations on the meaning of mindfulness. One of the best-known proponents of mindfulness is Jon Kabat-Zinn, a biomedical scientist who founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979. He created the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Program, the most researched mindfulness program in the world. He defines mindfulness as “Paying attention – in a particular way – on purpose – in the present moment –non-judgementally.” The “non-judgemental” aspect is key, and one of the most challenging things to do.

Another definition by mindful.org treats mindfulness as a quality that we already possess rather than something we have to create or summon: “Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we are doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.”

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Mindfulness is in all of us. All wisdom traditions have long-held practices that foster becoming more conscious, more intentional, and more aware of one’s inner processes. Science is now backing up what many have known for centuries.

While mindfulness is innate, it can also be cultivated through proven techniques such as sitting, walking and moving meditation, body scans, mindful listening and speaking, short pauses in our everyday life, and by integrating mindfulness practices with other activities such as sports or yoga. Although it is not helpful to start a mindfulness practice fixated on the benefits, there are benefits: increased self awareness, emotional balance, stress reduction, enhanced performance, greater focus and clarity, and increased attention to our own and others’ well-being.

Mindfulness meditation and practices can give us a time and space in our lives where we can be naturally curious and suspend judgement regarding what is going on in our body and mind. By approaching our experience with warmth and kindness, we can “befriend” ourselves and become more compassionate towards ourselves and others.

Some other things to know about mindfulness:
  • Mindfulness is not exotic. It is already in us, what we do, and who we are. Think of when you are in a flow state, doing something you love like gardening, interacting with a child or pet, or playing a sport.
  • We already have the capacity to be present. Simple practices can help us cultivate this capacity, benefiting ourselves, loved ones, friends and neighbours, people we work with, and the institutions and organizations we are connected to.
  • It doesn’t require us to change who we are. Solutions that ask us to change or become something we’re not have forever failed us. Mindfulness recognizes and cultivates the best of who we are as human beings.
  • Anyone can do it. Mindfulness cultivates universal human qualities and does not require anyone to change their values and beliefs.
  • It’s a way of living. Mindfulness is more than just a practice or tool. It brings awareness and caring into our daily lives and everything we do. It reduces needless stress.
  • It’s evidence-based. Science and experience over many decades demonstrate the positive benefits of mindfulness. It is now being used in many fields: education, justice, health, mental health and addictions, professional sports, occupational health and safety, the arts, and business to name a few.
  • It sparks creativity and innovation. The world has become increasingly complex. Mindfulness can lead us to effective responses and solutions to challenging situations.

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So back to that original question: “What is mindfulness anyway?” To know what mindfulness really is, it’s best to try it. Here is a simple practice that you can use as a “breather” during your day, or as the first step in responding to whatever challenging situations and feelings arise in a particular moment.

Notice it involves paying attention to your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations in your body…in other words, your whole being. By paying attention to what is actually going on, we can slow things down and respond rather than react.

The Three-Minute Breathing Space

From The Mindful Way through Depression – Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness, by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal and Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Step 1 – Becoming Aware

Begin by deliberately adopting an upright (but not rigid) and dignified posture, whether you are sitting or standing. If possible, close your eyes and bring your awareness to your inner experience. Ask, “What is my experience right now?”

  • What thoughts are going through my mind? As best you can, acknowledge thoughts as mental events, perhaps putting them into words.
  • What feelings are here? Turn toward any sense of emotional discomfort or unpleasant feelings and acknowledge their presence.
  • What body sensations are here right now? Quickly scan the body to pick up any sensations of tightness or bracing.

Any time your mind wanders from the focus of your experience (and it will!), gently bring it back with a sense of friendliness, without any harshness or judgement.

Step 2 – Gathering

Redirect your attention to focus on the physical sensations of breathing.

Pay attention to the sense of the breath in the belly…feeling the sensations of the belly wall expanding as you inhale…and falling back as you exhale.

Follow the breath all the way in and all the way out, using the sensation to anchor yourself in the present moment.

Step 3 – Expanding

Now expand your field of awareness around your breathing so that, in addition to the sensations of the breath, it includes a sense of your body as a whole, your posture, and your facial expression.

If you become aware of any sensations of discomfort, tension, or resistance, zero in on them by breathing into them on each inhale and breathing out from them on each exhale as you soften and open. If you want to, you might say to yourself on the exhale, “It’s okay. Whatever it is, it’s already here – let me feel it.”

As best you can, bring this expanded awareness into the next moments of your day. Practice taking a “breather” several times a day and notice any changes in how you are in your daily life.

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If you are interested in learning ways to feel more hopeful, engaged, and equipped to respond to things more creatively and thoughtfully, consider starting with some simple mindfulness practices. And remember, there is nothing to perfect – that’s why it’s called mindfulness “practice.”

There are many ways to explore mindfulness further. Here are some excellent websites that include free guided mindfulness practices:

Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society  www.umassmed.edu/cfm
Mindfulness Awareness Research Centre – UCLA  www.marc.ucla.edu
Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy www.mbct.com
Mindful: Living with Awareness and Compassion  www.mindful.org

Consider attending one of our workshops:


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Author: Elizabeth Shein (MSW, RSW)
Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute

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