Do you ever feel as though you are living on autopilot? Going through the day without a sense of being present in your daily round? Having a conversation with a friend or spouse, while thinking of everything that needs to be done by the end of the day? (Guilty!) Maybe you accomplish everything on your to-do list but still feel stuck in an endless cycle of “busyness.”
You’re not alone. The topic of mindfulness has become popular over the past several years, for good reason. Work and family responsibilities, coupled with never ending communication in the form of calls, texts, emails and the like tend to occupy much of our waking moments, leaving us in a more or less constant state of stimulation. Technology, for many of us, is always on. Before the internet and email, most of us could leave work at work and just go home. Now, we can be plugged in to work anytime, anywhere. And, if we’re not plugged into work, we’re often plugged into something else – our phone, Facebook, surfing the net. That’s a lot of stimulation that adds to the mix of our hurried lifestyles.
It’s really essential for wellbeing to take time daily to cultivate inner quiet and a positive mind-body balance. That’s where mindfulness comes in. And it doesn’t have to be one more thing to add into our day. Mindfulness starts right where you are.
Jon Kabat-Zinn is considered a pioneer in mindfulness and MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) and started the first MBSR program at the University of Massachusetts. He says that, although mindfulness can be cultivated through formal meditation, that’s not the only way. “It’s not really about sitting in the full lotus, like pretending you’re a statue in a British museum,” he says. “It’s about living your life as if it really mattered, moment by moment by moment by moment.”
So our working definition of mindfulness is going to be this: Full non-judgmental attention to what you are engaged in, what you’re working on, the person you’re talking to, and the environment you are in.
Why is mindfulness important? Studies over the last 35 years or so have shown that practicing mindfulness can have physical, psychological, and social benefits. Some examples:
- Mindfulness is good for our bodies. One significant study found practicing mindfulness for just 8 weeks boosts the immune system’s capacity to fight off illness.
- Mindfulness is good for our minds. Studies have found that mindfulness increases positive emotions, and reduces negative ones. It’s also been shown to decrease feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression.
- Mindfulness impacts our brains. Research has found that it increases density of the gray matter in brain regions linked to learning, memory, emotion regulation, and empathy. Practicing mindfulness can help improve concentration and memory. Mindful awareness helps us to be more aware of our emotional state in the moment and enhances our ability to control our reactions and impulsiveness.
- Mindfulness promotes compassion and altruism. Research suggests mindfulness training makes us more empathetic, and increases activity in neural networks involved in understanding the pain of others and regulating emotions. Data suggests it might boost self-compassion as well.
- Mindfulness enhances relationships. Research suggests mindfulness training can help couples feel more satisfied in their relationship, more optimistic and relaxed, and more accepting of and closer to one another.
- Mindfulness can help us be better parents. Parents who practice mindfulness describe being happier with their parenting skills and relationship with their kids, and their kids were found to have better social skills.
- Mindfulness helps health care professionals cope with stress, connect with their patients, and improve their quality of life. It can also help mental health professionals by reducing negative emotions and anxiety, and increasing their positivity and feelings of self-compassion.
- Mindfulness helps in prisons. Evidence suggests mindfulness reduces anger, hostility, and mood disturbances among prisoners, by increasing their awareness of their thoughts and emotions. This can help facilitate rehabilitation and reintegration.
- Mindfulness training can be used to help veterans. Studies suggest it can reduce the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the aftermath of war.
- Mindfulness can help with weight control. Practicing “mindful eating” encourages healthier eating habits, helps people lose weight, and helps them enjoy their food more.
Practicing mindfulness isn’t at all mysterious. It’s really about being fully present for your life.
In Part II on this topic, I’ll share some practical ideas and resources for you to start using to be fully present for all of your life.