If you’ve ever googled “how to be less stressed”, “how to cure anxiety and depression”, or “self-care ideas”, you would have seen mindfulness come up in almost every search result.
Modern psychology and self-improvement experts have discovered the vastly powerful benefits of mindfulness practice for mental resilience, and the practice has quickly become one of the most prevalent topics in self-help circles.
So much so, in fact, that psychologists now use the practice as treatment, big companies like Nike have incorporated it into their work policies, and businesses are popping up everywhere with the aim to help people like you and me access mindfulness and reap the benefits.
Unsurprisingly though, not a lot of people know what mindfulness actually is or where it comes from. So, let’s take a deep dive into the art of mindfulness.
The definition of mindfulness
Mindfulness is being fully present and aware of your mind, body and surroundings without being judgemental of them. It is an observation of everything in and around you through the use of your senses.
As human beings, we all possess the ability of mindfulness. Still, with the stress and fast pace of the modern world, it is not a common staple in everyday life, particularly in Western societies.
Where did mindfulness originate from?
To understand the origins of mindfulness, we start around 500 - 400BC and the beginnings of Buddhism.
Buddhism is a religion that began in North-eastern India by Siddhartha Gautama (now widely referred to as the “Buddha”), whose goal is to reach enlightenment.
Sati, the Pali word for mindfulness, is the first step on the path to enlightenment, making mindfulness the foundation of Buddhist principles.
It is interesting to note here that it is believed a lot of the Buddha’s influences come from Hinduism, meaning there is also a Hindu influence in mindfulness. The teachings of the Buddha propose that there are four foundations to mindfulness:
- Mindfulness of the body
Being aware of one’s breath, posture, and feeling in the body. Taking note of how the body feels, where you hold tension, how you breathe, and where the breath goes.
- Mindfulness of the feelings
Rather than focus on emotion, this mindfulness step is about sensations. How do things feel in the present moment? Do they bring pleasure? Pain? Is it positive? Is it negative? Or does it feel neutral?
This stage is vital for learning that sensations and feelings arose in a never-ending flux and that we can allow feelings to pass by without judgement or action.
- Mindfulness of the mind
What state is your mind in? The Buddha outlined sixteen mental states to be observed in the mind. The aim of this stage is to allow your state of mind to just be, without trying to change it to either be more positive or less negative. It is about removing the self from the state of mind.
- Mindfulness of the Dhamma
Dhamma translates to things and relates to both the path to enlightenment as well as the “things” (thoughts, feelings, sensations) that occupy the mind.
This stage of mindfulness looks at the thoughts and feelings that arise in our brain in relation to groups set out in Buddhist literature.
How did mindfulness make its way to Western society?
In the nineteenth century, as trade became much easier with Asian countries, the traders became interested in the Buddhist teachings, going as far as to create pamphlets of information for people back home.
Surprisingly though, this didn’t cause Buddhism to catch on quite yet in the “Western world”.
Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh was exiled from Vietnam during the Vietnam war, leading to his rise as an activist speaking out against the war. In the 1970’s he used his newly found platform to start spreading the teachings of Buddhism to Western cultures. He subsequently wrote hundreds of books on the topic.
News of the Chinese occupation of Tibet also brought awareness of the Dalai Lama and his teachings, helping spread the word of Buddhist teachings from the East to the West.
Perhaps the most notable person to bring mindfulness to Western society was Jon Kabat-Zinn. He learned Buddhism and mindfulness under the guidance of several Buddhist teachers, leading him to create the Mindfulness-Based Stress-Reduction (MBSR) program in Massachusetts, USA.
The reason Kabat-Zinn was so successful in promoting mindfulness in America, and subsequently other Western countries, is that he adapted to the more non-secular, science-based beliefs of the population and created his program to fit in with the lifestyles of a typical person living in the USA.
This included an understanding that many of the people he was catering to had little time to spend on mindfulness, so any strategies had to be doable in short periods of time.
Finally, in 1976, Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, and Sharon Salzburg opened the Insight Meditation Centre to help American’s access the benefits of the mindfulness teachings from Buddhism and Eastern cultures and religions.
The importance of mindfulness
Our life can be very overwhelming at times. We can often miss the bigger picture by focusing too much on being busy and the stresses that go with it. We become unable to be present in the moment, and appreciate what is happening in that very moment. This can be frustrating, exhausting, and stressful.
Mindfulness has been shown to help aid positive mental health, but it also allows us to have an improved perspective of the world and our surroundings. This clearer perspective on the world can result in a more fulfilled, compassionate, and happier life.
Mindfulness is important because of the positive impact it has on all areas of our life. At work, mindfulness exercises give us the tools to react positively towards what could be stressful environments, which can result in increased productivity and effectiveness towards our working goals. Using mindful techniques at home can help us to appreciate those around us, and appreciate our environment. This can result in better communication with our family and loved ones, and can improve our relationships as a whole.
Why is mindfulness so popular?
From CEOs to high-profile professional athletes, everyone wants a piece of the mindfulness pie. But why is the practice so widely praised and coveted?
Thanks to Kabat-Zinn, Hanh, and the trio behind the Insight Meditation centre, hundreds of scientific studies on the effects of mindfulness are carried out yearly.
Businesses, schools, and mental health practitioners are all moving towards making mindfulness activities commonplace in their respective fields. The physical and mental health benefits of mindfulness are incredible.
Mindfulness reduces stress, increases focus and builds resilience. It allows people to embrace their creativity to problem solve. It teaches its students how to be more self-compassionate and grateful while learning to be more forgiving.
Mindfulness has also been known to effectively treat some common mental health illnesses such as anxiety, depression and PTSD. As anxiety can be seen as “living in the future” and depression “living in the past”, the mindfulness focus on being present is a much-needed tool to combat this unhelpful thought focus.
What are some common mindfulness activities?
Modern mindfulness practices come in many shapes and sizes to adapt and be accessible to all who wish to partake.
Perhaps the most traditional and longstanding is mindfulness meditation and guided meditations.
In this activity, you use meditation as a way to connect your mind with the sensations in the body. You learn to label thoughts and allow them to pass through your brain without engaging with them. In this way, you start to become more present in the moment.
You also learn how to breathe properly and deeply to enable the body to relax and release tension. After all, body tension is a significant contributor to mental experiences of stress.
Another common practice of mindfulness is yoga. Yoga is a gentle exercise that harnesses the core principles of mindfulness – being present in one’s own body and mind.
The practice of yoga has a long history of correlation with mindfulness and is a perfect activity for those who don’t like sitting still and want to take a more active approach to mindfulness.
Mindful walking is an exercise that allows a person to be present within nature. As you walk around, you should try and notice the smells and noises that surround you. What colours can you see? How does your body feel as you are walking.
Being wholly present in your walk provides exercise while eliminating the problem most people have of their thoughts mindlessly wondering about stressful and troubling events that have happened in the past or things we need to do later on.
A much newer application of mindfulness, mindful eating aims to improve the relationship people have with eating.
It’s no secret that many people have an unhealthy relationship with food leading to eating disorders such as binge eating and bulimia.
Mindful eating uses the same principles of being present and aware, using your senses to experience the world around you, and applies them specifically to food and eating. This helps you to learn the difference between eating for hunger vs eating as a coping mechanism for negative emotions.
Self-compassion and acceptance mindfulness
In this practice, mindfulness is used to combat negative self-thoughts by repeating mantras of self-worth and allowing distractions and negative thoughts to simply pass through the brain without engaging them.
It allows you to be kind to yourself and forgiving, allowing you to accept yourself exactly as you are.
Mindfulness has its roots in ancient Eastern culture and philosophy, predominantly from Hindu and Buddhist traditions. And thanks to people like Thich Nhat Hanh and Jon Kabat-Zinn, this incredibly healing practice has made its way to Western countries, so we can all benefit from it.
At its core, mindfulness is all about being present and aware without thought or judgement, and with a little bit of creativity and tweaking, there is a mindfulness style to suit everybody.
So the only question now is, how will you bring mindfulness into your life?