We are often asked to explain mindfulness in simple terms that people without formal training can understand. When the topic comes up, we like to explain mindfulness as training and conditioning for the mind. Think of how an athlete trains and conditions his body for maximum performance during competition. Mindfulness does similar things for thoughts and emotions.
An Ancient Practice
What modern psychology knows as mindfulness can be traced back to an ancient practice rooted in Hinduism and Buddhism. Centuries ago, mindfulness was practiced both religiously and secularly in Eastern cultures. It made it to the West when Buddhism and Hinduism were embraced by young people in the 1950s and 60s.
Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Medical School is largely credited with introducing the modern concept of mindfulness in the 1970s. In late 1979, Kabat-Zinn launched the Stress Reduction Clinic at UMass along with a program he called ‘Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction’. From that program, mindfulness was born.
Mindfulness is a concept rooted in the idea of focused awareness. To be mindful is to increase self-awareness by focusing on the present moment without any external judgment or previously conceived interpretation. It involves training the mind to be an objective observer of one’s thoughts, feelings, and sensations.
In being objective, the goal is to not be caught up in what you are feeling at the moment. Likewise, you don’t want to react to your thoughts, feelings, and sensations as you observe them. Rather, you just want to observe and acknowledge them.
How Mindfulness Works
Mindfulness is a strategy we employ in modern psychology to great effect. Understanding why goes back to the idea of the practice being akin to training and conditioning the mind. Think about what an athlete does to maximize competitive advantage. He trains his body to do certain things. He conditions his body to be deprived of oxygen, to perspire excessively, and to tolerate pain as a result of physical stress. Through conditioning and training, he teaches his body to overcome when it physically feels tired in order to continue pressing forward.
Mindfulness does much the same thing for thoughts and emotions. Therapists utilize a variety of strategies within the mindfulness exercise to promote conditioning and training. These include:
- Attention Regulation – The practice of training the mind to focus on the present moment.
- Detachment – The practice of observing one’s thoughts and feelings without attaching any judgments or interpretations to them.
- Acceptance – The practice of accepting both the negative and positive aspects of the mindfulness experience.
Attention regulation, detachment, and acceptance do not occur immediately. Very few people experience all three during the first session. Mindfulness requires training the mind and emotions. Like an athlete training the body, the training and conditioning take place over many sessions.
How Mindfulness Helps
Practicing mindfulness would have very little value in psychotherapy if it didn’t help. Fortunately, it does. In fact, research has demonstrated multiple benefits of regular mindfulness. At the top of the list is reduced stress and anxiety. Mindfulness also helps:
- Improve mood and wellbeing.
- Increase self-awareness.
- Improve focus and concentration.
- Reduce the risk of other mental health problems.
- Improve pain tolerance.
- Improve sleep quality.
So much of what we feel physically and emotionally is tied to the thoughts we think. Likewise, much of what makes up a mental disorder is tied to thoughts and emotions. Mindfulness is a means of understanding thoughts and emotions from an objective perspective, thereby giving a person the opportunity to channel what he is thinking, feeling, and sensing in a positive direction.