Wednesday, August 6, 2014

What is Mindfulness?

What is Mindfulness?
By Tatijana Busic, PhD. Candidate

Welcome to our blog on mindfulness. This is the first in a series of upcoming blogs in which we'll introduce you to the concept of mindfulness and talk about the incredible benefits of this simple, yet, powerful way of living!

In this first blog, we'll define mindfulness and talk about some important distinctions between mindfulness and meditation. In our second blog, we'll explore the psychological and physical benefits of a simple mindfulness practice in everyday life. In our third blog, we'll talk about how mindfulness can be used to enrich and deepen your relationships at home, school and work. Finally, we'll tie things up by introducing you to some very basic tools and strategies that you can start practicing, as well as, share some helpful resources. So let's begin!

To start, lets talk about what mindfulness actually is. Some folks may think of mindfulness as meditation, and this can be scary! Rightly so! We might imagine spiritual gurus spending years of their life practicing and honing the powerful skill of meditation. Although these two concepts are closely related, there are some important differences.

Similarities: The beginning stages of learning mindfulness and meditation are virtually identical. We are learning how to do two very important tasks - How to consciously relax and how to consciously direct our attentional processes. Essentially, we're learning how to relax our bodies and control where and how our mind wanders. 

Differences: Basically, meditation stems from Buddhist philosophy and spiritualties that derive from ancient monastic traditions. Learning how to meditate involves learning the values, beliefs and traditions that are embedded within various traditions. Mindfulness, on the other hand, emerged from the discipline of psychology, scientific research and modern day language and culture. Learning to be mindful, doesn't necessarily involve learning the practice or values of monastic traditions. In many ways, mindfulness is far more applicable to our complex, modern society and therefore, a lot easier and faster to learn.

Some other differences include:
In meditation we sit still - In mindfulness we can be engaged in any task
Meditation takes time - Mindfulness can be switched on at any time
In meditation we focus inward on the body - Mindfulness involves thoughts, feelings, actions and any state of mind!

So what is Mindfulness, exactly?
Mindfulness has become a key focus in psychological and educational research and practice since the 1980's. Our busy, modern-day lifestyles have steered our minds and bodies toward a constant state of frenzy. We're always doing - multi-tasking, multi-thinking and multi-moving!

It's like the autopilot switch in our brain has been turned on permanently. At times this kind of intensity is great! We need it to get a job done while under high pressure. However, when chronically activated, over time, our brains and our bodies become hungry for, addicted to constant stimulation. We may find it hard to switch off or we may become uncomfortable when things are quiet. At other times, we may miss the beauty that surrounds us. Have you ever been on vacation or even just walking through an autumn kissed park and found yourself worrying about other things? Things you have no control over in that moment? Have you found yourself unable to take-in the serenity?  Notice it, feel it and reap the rewards from it?

Put simply, mindfulness is about slowing down our stimulus-bound attentional processes and taking the time to consciously, with self awareness, choose what we pay attention to vs. automatically responding to whatever is going on around us.
Like any skill, learning how to live a more mindful life, takes time and practice - about 100-200 repetitions or three months to consolidate this new and wonderful practice in your brain, your mind and your body.

In the next blog, we'll talk about the physical and psychological benefits of mindfulness. And explain how and why this practice can help alleviate psychological issues such as anxiety and depression.  How it helps us sleep better, feel better and see our selves and the world around us in a different and healthier way.