Since the 1990s there’s been a steady increase in popular awareness of mindfulness meditation in Western culture and medicine. Authors, tv personalities, bloggers, self-help gurus, psychotherapists and physicians have embraced it as a means to increase self-awareness, regulate emotional responses to stressful situations, and manage symptoms of chronic illnesses.
It was founded in Eastern tradition and religions, but has gained more acceptance and promotion in the West due to its many potential benefits. With regular practice of the method, improvement can be seen in things like mood, pain, inflammation, and in higher-order brain function, to name a few. What is it, though, and why is it gaining so much traction? First, let’s clear up some common misconceptions:
What Mindfulness Isn’t
- Focusing or contemplating on a thought or idea.
- Making your mind go “blank”.
- Forgetting the past.
- A quick cure for long-term stress.
- Abandoning people and tasks that need your attention.
- Embracing and taking on a new religion – While it was founded in Buddhism, which takes the practice in the direction of it’s core beliefs, the Western approach emphasizes the process and doesn’t link the practice back to a philosophy or belief system.
What Mindfulness IS
- Filling your attention with what’s here, in this very moment, right now… and right now… and right now.
- Telling yourself the priority for what gets space in your head right now is what your senses are picking up, and nothing more.
- Allowing other thoughts to exist, observing what they are, and giving yourself permission to put them down for now, so internal dust can settle.
- Remaining non-judgmental about any thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations that arise during the moments you are being mindful.
How to do it:
Whether you’re setting aside quiet time for structured practice or squeezing in a moment here and there, choose something your senses are picking up on as an object of focus. This can be the sensation of air moving in and out of your lungs or through your nose. It can be the feeling of the ground beneath your feet, the sensation of something soft in your hand, seeing the shine on a smooth stone, or the scent of a nearby flower.
Imagine your mind is like a boat on rough waters, and this object is the anchor holding you in place. As you tune into your anchor, your attention will drift as thoughts and feelings pull and nudge your mind to-and-fro, as a boat drifting in choppy waters. Each time you refocus, that object will gently tug you back to the present moment, over and over just as a boat’s anchor keeps it from floating away.
What to Expect
- It will be hard. Many people say “I can’t do it” because their mind keeps drifting away. It’s doing exactly what the mind does – it wanders, or even jumps around wildly. People who practice mindfulness with regularity find it becomes easier with time to rein it back in, and build new insights into thought patterns that may be preventing them from moving toward whatever their goal is.
- You may fall asleep. Imagine juggling several balls at a time. The balls are your level of alertness and the juggling is your thoughts churning around in your head keeping them in the air. If juggling slows down or stops, those balls will hit the ground pretty fast. So many people say they can’t meditate because they fall asleep. That just means your mind really needs the break!
What’s the Point, Then?
Despite the initial difficulty for many, growing your ability to be mindful is well worth the effort. As with any skill, it takes practice for the wiring in the brain to be built up. Being more mindful will enable you to:
- Put yourself in charge of where your mind goes. Instead of a stressful situation triggering emotions that drive your thinking, feeling and acting, you put your free will back in the drivers seat. This helps you make better decisions and act more rationally.
- Calm down the stress response that feeds all the systems of your body, which increases disease risk. Allowing the healing/maintenance branch of your nervous system to do its job and let your body systems get back on the right track will make your body function better.
- Give insight into recurrent thought patterns that intrude during the practice, and provide you with a more objective stance to evaluate other perspectives. This can reduce the intensity of thoughts that feed the flames of unpleasant emotions, improving mental health.
Practicing mindfulness is a tool that doesn’t cost money, doesn’t require equipment, and can be done anywhere. Researchers are just beginning to unlock the benefits and it can be a great addition to your arsenal in preventing disease and managing chronic conditions.