March 28, 2012


Last January, I wrote about how mindfulness was taking the psychology world by storm. One year later, interest in mindfulness hasn't abated; if anything, it's grown--in my personal world, in the mental health field, and in Western culture at large.

What exactly is mindfulness again?

Mindfulness involves purposeful attention and awareness in the present moment, with acceptance and without judgment. Let's look more closely at the four key components of the definition, all of which overlap:
  • Being in the present moment: Being mindful means being present no matter what you're doing. It means that when you talk with someone, you listen and actually hear and respond to what he or she says, rather than thinking about what you did earlier in the day, or only half paying attention while you smile and nod automatically. It means that when you eat dinner, you actually taste and appreciate your food, rather than reading while you eat or fantasizing about dessert or about what you're doing later.
  • Awareness: Mindfulness means being aware of what's going on inside and around you, a kind of "waking up" to your life. The idea is that we sleepwalk through a lot of our days, without questioning our habits, routines, and reactions, and without noticing the impact they have on us and on the people around us. Mindful awareness means that when you find yourself doing something unusual or unhelpful, (e.g., eating when you're not hungry, drinking too much, overreacting to an innocent comment, avoiding your email inbox), you notice your behaviour and ask yourself "what's that about?"
  • Attention: Being present and aware requires focused attention. You can't be in the present moment if your mind is off in the past or the future, and you can't be aware of yourself, others, or your environment if you aren't paying attention. Part of being mindful is cultivating the ability to focus your attention on what's happening now. Minds naturally drift away from the present, but with greater awareness and with meditation training, you develop the ability to notice when your mind drifts off and the discipline to bring your attention back to the present. These skills are cultivated by guided meditation exercises that use various anchors (e.g. the breath, body sensations, sounds in the environment) to increase your capacity for sustained and focused attention.
  • Acceptance and non-judgment: In addition to being aware and attentive to what's happening as it's happening, mindfulness implies a kind of equanimity and acceptance of experience. The idea is that whatever's happening--pleasant or unpleasant--is already happening, and that struggling against the experience or labeling it as awful is unhelpful. We can develop equanimity in the face of any event or outcome by accepting the raw experience, rather than piling on layers of resistance and secondary emotions. Importantly, acceptance doesn't mean resignation; it doesn't mean that you have to accept everything that comes your way and never try to change or improve your circumstances. Rather, it means being aware and accepting of the facts. Accepting that your bus is late, that your partner forgot your birthday, or that you lost your job--rather than denying or resisting--frees up your energy and attention to decide what you want to do about it.
Mindfulness isn't a secret, special, or necessarily spiritual thing or something that happens only during meditation; rather, it's a way of being in everyday life, cultivated by daily meditation. An example of mindfulness meditation is sitting for fifteen minutes simply paying attention to your breathing or just observing sounds in your environment, without judging them or trying to change them. This type of exercise provides the opportunity to practice being aware, attentive, and accepting in the present moment, skills that sooner or later generalize into the rest of your moments, hours, and days.

1 comment:

  1. Great post to read while having lunch and watching Dateline reruns! :)