“The awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.”
- Jon Kabat-Zinn
Mindfulness is an innate human capability. It simply means an awareness of one's inner and outer world, moment to moment - instead of ruminating about the past or projecting into the future - with an attitude of not judging what we may notice.
The concept of mindfulness has its roots in Buddhism. “Mindfulness” traces to the Pali word 'Sati', which in the Indian Buddhist tradition implies awareness, attention, or alertness - 3 qualities that seem to support a meaningful life. Ancient traditions have employed mindfulness meditation training in order to come to realise the true nature of themselves.
It is important to note mindfulness is a non-religious and non-spiritual method that does not require any kind of belief ssytem to practice it. As we see mindfulness today in its non-secular form and the proliferation of the practice in the Western world, we must thank Jon Kabat-Zinn - American Proffesor of Medicine, Molecular Biologist, Author and co-creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at University of Massachsettes. After studying with Zen Buddhist teachers such as Thich Nhat Hanh, Jon began integrating scientific methods to learn about the potential of mindfulness practice. This would be the foundation for what is now the most researched and wideley adopted mindfulness training program for learning to cope with stress, anxiety, pain, and illness - the Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction Program.
Fundamentally, the concept of mindfulness is that of bringing conscious attention to whatever you are experiencing moment-to-moment, in a non-judgemental manner. Mindfulness can be seen as a mind-body focused approach that uses formal meditation techniques as a way to bring attention to oneself in the present moment.
Mindfulness develops the capacity to be with challenging thoughts, feelings, emotions, and physical sensations - where the tendency may have been to avoid, suppress or distract things that cause stress. It can seem strange to turn into stress and challenging emotions, and doing so, in the beginning, will naturally be met with resistance and discomfort, but with practice and guidance, mindfulness can enable us to be present in the face of these things.
Mindfulness cultivates the ability to live in the present moment; it develops the capacity to be with whatever is happening in the present moment - it's a human quality that we all possess. However, the manner in which our brains have evolved, the human conditioning that we are at the mercy of, along the demands of modern life, meaning we spend a lot of time living in our heads.
It's difficult to really know how much time is spent worrying, planning, analysing, regretting, self-criticising, judging our circumstances or ruminating on the past and we've certainly not been taught how to stop it. These mental habits that become hardwired over the years can become a cycle, that difficult to break can turn destructive. Becoming aware of the active mind that is constantly chatting enables us to pause and direct the attention back to the here and now. Thoughts are not bad, this is not about stopping thoughts, instead, it's about developing the awareness that they are coming and going, so they don't control us. Sustaining attention to the present moment has been shown to be essential for our mental and physical health, as well as many other aspects of our life.
The central feature of the Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction programme is learning that we can transform the relationship that we have to all of our experiences, in particular the stress. An underlying intention throughout the course is to become aware of how our perception and interpretations impact everything in our life - how we feel, how we react, the decisions that we make, and the relationships with the people around us. With practice we come to recognise our patterns of thought, emotions, and mood, with this clarity there is an opportunity to pause and observe. The space gives an opportunity to decide - whether to continue being swept away in the habitual activity of the mind or to change direction - mindfulness creates this space.
How we feel about, and interact with, daily life changes significantly as we develop the ability to step out of the habitual ways of dealing with stress that we have unknowingly learned over time. The practice of paying mindful attention to our thoughts, feelings, and emotions leads us to a deeper understanding of ourselves, in this less resistance to our experience comes more self-acceptance.
There is an established, and growing, body of clinical research and scientific evidence that demonstrates the power of mindfulness and the positive impact that it has on aspects of whole-person health such as the brain, the mind, the body, habits, and behaviour as well as a person's relationship with others.