What is Mindfulness?

By eM Life Teacher Kelly Barron

Mindfulness is moving into the mainstream

Corporations, schools, hospitals, professional sports teams and even the U.S. military are offering mindfulness as a way to help people become more stress resilient, focused and healthier.

 Research shows that mindfulness can help us reduce our anxiety, better regulate our emotions, boost our immune system and make us happier.

But as mindfulness becomes more popular – even trendy – understanding just what it is and how to authentically incorporate it into your life has become more confusing. After all, nowadays the word mindfulness is used to market everything from coffee mugs to shoes. (Yes, there’s actually shoe brand called Mindful Shoes.)

All of it begs the question: Just what is mindfulness?

“Mindfulness is the awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally,” says Jon Kabat-Zinn, a pioneer in the mindfulness field and the creator of the Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction course.

While mindfulness might sound a bit mysterious, there’s nothing exotic about it.

We all have the capacity to be mindful. Have you ever, for example, been at the beach and been present with the sounds of the waves and the warmth of the sun on your face? Or have you ever been angry and noticed a tightness in your chest or the clenching of your jaw and decided to hold your tongue rather than let your anger loose? All of these experiences are facets of mindfulness.

When we’re mindful we’re aware of our moment-to-moment experience – including our thoughts, feelings and physical sensations – with an attitude of openness and curiosity. Being mindful allows us to more fully experience our lives and to be responsive rather than reactive to what’s happening inside us as well as the external circumstances of our lives.

But while we all have the capacity to be mindful, we actually need to cultivate and practice it. That’s because most of the time we operate mindlessly and on automatic pilot. Researchers at Harvard University, for example, have discovered that our minds continually wander and that half of our waking moments are spent thinking about something other than what we’re doing. It’s not all our fault. The brain is wired to continually scan our environment and project into the future and rehash the past because it helped our ancestors detect and avoid threats to their survival. There’s also a neurological basis for being on autopilot. Habit expert and author Charles Duhigg says that as much as 45% of what we do is habitual. From the perspective of the brain, habits are neurologically efficient. We can brush our teeth or drive a car without having to relearn it each time we do it.

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But living mindlessly and being on autopilot can be a bit joyless as well as stressful. When we’re not present, we often miss the many small good moments, such as a smile with a cashier or the first sip of our morning coffee, that invite more joy into our lives. Not being aware of our habitual tendencies– especially the mental and emotional patterns that unconsciously play out in our lives – also can get us into trouble. It’s hard to stop overeating when you’re stressed, for example, if you’re not aware that’s what you’re doing.

Being mindful gives us the opportunity to not only live more fully but also to see our mental and emotional habits more clearly and to choose whether or not we want to engage in them.

One of the ways to become more mindful is through the practice of meditation, which also sounds a lot more exotic than it is. When we practice meditation, we learn to pay attention to an object in our present moment experience such as the breath. In the beginning of a meditation practice, when our mind wanders from our breath we’re instructed to bring it back to the sensations of breathing. Doing this is a little bit like a bicep curl for the brain. It builds our attention and our capacity to be more present and aware in our daily lives. Just like working out at the gym allows us to more easily run up a flight of stairs, paying attention to our breath builds our capacity to be mindful.

We can also bring present-moment attention and awareness to our everyday activities to foster greater mindfulness. We can, for example, wash the dishes mindfully, walk mindfully and even send a text with undivided attention.

To understand mindfulness more fully, it also helps to know a bit more about what it isn’t. Here are three common myths about mindfulness that will help you further understand what it is and what it isn’t – all of which might encourage you to give mindfulness a try.

1. Mindfulness Isn’t About Clearing Your Mind of Thoughts.

The mouth waters, the eyes blink and the mind thinks. Just as we can’t stop blinking, we can’t stop thinking. The mind plans, judges, daydreams and worries. Mindfulness isn’t about getting rid of all of that. It’s about noticing your thoughts and, over time, learning to become less caught up in them.

2. Mindfulness Isn’t About Being Calm.

Much like fitness is a byproduct of going to the gym, calmness often arises as a result of practicing meditation and mindfulness in daily life. But it’s not a prerequisite. You can be angry, frustrated or embarrassed and be aware and present with your anger, frustration and embarrassment. Even after practicing mindfulness for years, you’ll still experience the full range of difficult emotions. But you’ll likely not be as overwhelmed or carried away by them.

3. Mindfulness Isn’t About Meditating for Hours.

While it’s true that you have to practice mindfulness, you don’t have to meditate for hours a day or go on a silent retreat to reap the benefits of practice. Many people report that several minutes a day of meditation benefits them. But as with any other practice, whether it’s playing the piano or painting, the more you do it and the more often you do it, the more you’ll get out of it.

Ready to Discover what Mindfulness is?

With eM Life it’s simple. Gain access to on-demand content, expert mindfulness teachers, and a community of support. This new year, discover a new you! Sign-up for eM Life’s free One Percent Challenge where your 14 minutes a day of practice will help charity and earn you rewards.

About the Author
Kelly Barron. M.A., is a certified mindfulness facilitator at UCLA and writer. She teaches mindfulness for UCLA’s Mindfulness Research Center as well as for corporations, schools and private groups. Kelly has worked as a mindfulness teacher with eM Life since 2016. She came to learn the value of mindfulness as a deadline-driven journalist. Now, she’s passionate about sharing mindfulness with others to help them live with more ease, clarity and joy. You can learn more about Kelly and read her blog at www.kellybarron.com.

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Also published on Medium.