What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.
Mindfulness is a very simple form of meditation that was little known in the West until recently. A typical meditation consists of focusing your full attention on your breath as it flows in and out of your body. Focusing on each breath in this way allows you to observe your thoughts as they arise in your mind and, little by little, to let go of struggling with them. You come to realise that thoughts come and go of their own accord; that you are not your thoughts. You can watch as they appear in your mind, seemingly from thin air, and watch again as they disappear. You come to the profound understanding that thoughts and feelings (including negative ones) are transient. They come and they go, and ultimately, you have a choice about whether to act on them or not.
History of Mindfulness
Mindfulness is a practice involved in various religious and secular traditional from Hinduism and Buddhism to yoga and, more recently, non-religious meditation. People have been practising mindfulness for thousands of years, whether on its own or as part of a larger tradition.
In general, mindfulness was popularised in the East by religious and spiritual institutions, while in the West its popularity can be traced to particular people and secular institutions. The secular tradition of mindfulness in the West owes its roots to Eastern religions and traditions. Most modern Western practitioners and teachers of mindfulness learned about mindfulness in the Buddhist and Hindu tradition.
Hinduism is widely considered to be the oldest extant religion in the world, but it is hard to trace its history. This is because it initially arose as a synthesis of many religious traditions around the historical region that now makes up India. In other words, Hinduism has no single founder and no concrete starting point. In fact, the religious tradition was not even called Hinduism or considered a singular entity until British writers started calling Vedic traditions ‘Hinduism’ in the 1800s.
The earliest traditions, which have since been incorporated into Hinduism, arose more than 4,000 years ago in the Indus Valley now Pakistan. These religious traditions continued to develop in Vedic writings 2,500-3,500 years ago. These writings included rituals and the worship of the Gods common to modern-day Hinduism. About 1,500-2,500 years ago, additional texts were composed which are involved in present-day Hinduism, including texts introducing the concepts of dharma and temple worship. Mindfulness has been intertwined with Hinduism for thousands of years. From the Bhagavad Gita discussions of yoga to Vedic meditation, the history of Hinduism reads in part like a history of mindfulness.
Compared to Hinduism, Buddhism history is much more well-defined. Buddhism was founded around 400-500 BC. by Siddhartha Gautama, who became referred to as the Buddha. Gautama is thought to have been born and raised around modern-day India and Nepal. Based on where and when Gautama was raised, it is thought that Hinduism informed his upbringing.
Buddhism and Hinduism share many commonalities they both arose in the same region and are greatly concerned with the concept of dharma. A concept that is very difficult to define or translate, but includes a way of life that is in harmony with the natural order of the universe. Despite the shared presence of dharma in both of these philosophies/religions, Buddhism is not a subsect of Hinduism because Buddhism does not concern itself with the sacred writings of the Veda.
In general, Buddhism is a religion (blurred with philosophy, like many religions) that aims to show its followers the path to enlightenment. Since the Buddha lifetime, it has split into several different traditions including Theravada Buddhism and Zen Buddhism. Today, Buddhism is most often thought of by non-practitioners in the terms of Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama, an individual who is thought to be an enlightened teacher of Tibetan Buddhism.
Mindfulness may be even more involved in Buddhism than it is in Hinduism, as mindfulness (Sati) is considered to be the first step towards enlightenment. The fact that mindfulness is such a crucial aspect of Buddhism, combined with the fact that many Western influences in mindfulness studied under Buddhist teachers, shows that Western mindfulness is largely indebted to Buddhism.
How Mindfulness relates to Yoga
There is a lot of overlap between mindfulness and yoga, both historically and presently. Many yoga practices incorporate mindfulness and some mindfulness meditation practices, such as the body scan, are very similar to yoga as they both involve awareness of ones body.
One study examined this idea by measuring mindfulness in people who practice yoga (Gaiswinkler & Unterrainer, 2016). The researchers found that people who practice yoga regularly had higher levels of mindfulness than people who were only slightly involved with yoga or who were not involved in yoga practice. This indicates that yoga is positively correlated with levels of mindfulness and that some forms of yoga and some forms of mindfulness are striving for the same goals.
What are the benefits of Mindfulness?
Over time, mindfulness can bring about long-term changes in mood and levels of happiness and wellbeing. Scientific studies have shown that mindfulness not only prevents depression, but that it also positively affects the brain patterns underlying day-to-day anxiety, stress, depression and irritability so that when they arise, they dissolve away again more easily. Other studies have shown that regular meditators see healthcare professionals less often and spend fewer days in hospital. Memory improves, creativity increases, and reaction times become faster.
Mindfulness improves well-being
Increasing your capacity for mindfulness supports many attitudes that contribute to a satisfied life. Being mindful makes it easier to savour the pleasures in life as they occur, helps you become fully engaged in activities, and creates a greater capacity to deal with adverse events. By focusing on the here and now, many people who practice mindfulness find that they are less likely to get caught up in worries about the future or regrets over the past, are less preoccupied with concerns about success and self-esteem, and are better able to form deep connections with others.
Mindfulness improves physical health
If greater well-being isn’t enough of an incentive, scientists have discovered that mindfulness techniques help improve physical health in a number of ways. Mindfulness can: help relieve stress, reduce the risk of heart disease, lower blood pressure, reduce chronic pain and aid a good nights sleep.
Mindfulness improves mental health
Becoming more aware of the present moment can help us enjoy the world around us more and understand ourselves better. When we become more aware of the present moment, we begin to experience afresh things that we have been taking for granted.
Mindfulness also allows us to become more aware of the stream of thoughts and feelings that we experience, and to see how we can become entangled in that stream in ways that are not helpful. This lets us stand back from our thoughts and start to see their patterns. Gradually, we can train ourselves to notice when our thoughts are taking over and realise that thoughts are simply ‘mental events’ that do not have to control us. Most of us have issues that we find hard to let go and mindfulness can help us deal with them more productively.
Mindfulness is recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as a way to prevent depression and relieve those experiencing stress and anxiety.
Mindfulness meditation is a mental training practice that teaches you to slow down racing thoughts, let go of negativity, and calm both your mind and body. Mindfulness techniques can vary, but in general, mindfulness meditation involves a breathing practice, mental imagery, awareness of body and mind, and muscle and body relaxation. Practicing mindfulness meditation doesn’t require props or preparation (no need for candles, essential oils, or mantras, unless you enjoy them). To get started, all you need is a comfortable place to sit or lay, ten minutes of free time, and a judgment-free mindset!
Despite the proven benefits, many people are still a little wary when they hear the word meditation. So, before you try it, it might be helpful to dispel some myths:
Meditation is not a religion. Mindfulness is simply a method of mental training. Many people who practise meditation are themselves religious, but then again, many atheists and agnostics are keen meditators too.
You don’t have to sit cross-legged on the floor (like the pictures you may have seen in magazines or on TV), but you can if you want to. Most people find laying or sitting in a comfortable position helps them get into the zone when meditating.
Mindfulness practice does not take a lot of time, although some patience and persistence are required.
Meditation is not complicated. Nor is it about success or failure. It is seeing about being present.
Techniques you will need to learn to meditate:
Breathing -Become aware of your breath, attuning to the sensation of air moving in and out of your body as you breathe. Feel your belly rise and fall and the air enter your nostrils and leave your mouth. Pay attention to the way each breath changes and is different.
Give yourself a break – If during meditation you find yourself getting carried away in your thoughts whether with worry, fear, anxiety, or hope – observe where your mind went, without judgment, and just return to your breathing. Don’t be hard on yourself if this happens; the practice of returning to your breath and refocusing on the present is the practice of mindfulness!
If you are a beginner at mindful meditation, you should try a guided meditation session. Listen to the relaxing music, focus on your breathing and ground yourself in the guides voice, following their instructions to become at peace in mind and body.