Mindfulness Simply Means Being Aware and Being Present
Most religions and spiritual practices encourage some sort of meditation and mindfulness. However, the specific practice of bringing your attention and your focus to the present moment, and observing and accepting the experience as is, is most commonly associated with the Eastern meditative traditions.
Mindfulness is an element of the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path to nirvana (enlightenment.) The Buddha taught that a mistaken perception of reality inevitably leads to suffering. Mindfulness is the primary means of bridging that gap between how things seem to be and how they really are.
Attending to What Happens to Our Minds, Hearts, Attitudes, and Actions
In its secular form, mindfulness is but a practice of consciousness. It is heedfulness or awareness of your subjective thoughts, behaviors, and experiences—without evaluating or judging them.
Mindfulness can help you, through direct experience, become more comfortable with your life and to be better able to cope with the problems and issues in your daily life.
The heightened mental receptivity, together with an increased sensitivity to the environment, better openness to new information, and a sharper decision-making are understood to produce a great number of physiological and psychological benefits.
Mindfulness is the Best Antidote to Anxiety
In a world that barrages us with information and demands us to be incessantly active and reactive, mindlessness is being embraced increasingly in the mainstream culture. As a supplement to yoga, and without any specific religious association, mindfulness is today practiced as a way to prevent being swept away in an avalanche of thought, activity, and emotion.
David Gelles’s Mindful Work: How Meditation Is Changing Business from the Inside Out provides a remarkable account of the ever-increasing adoption of meditation-based mindfulness. Prominent American corporations such as Google, General Mills, Aetna, and Ford have built mindfulness-themed employee wellness initiatives to foster a happier, more productive workplace.
Gelles brings a business journalist’s objectivity to draw together his experience of practicing meditation for 15 years. He also reviews scientific research that has evidenced how people who have a mindfulness routine are less distractible and better at concentrating, even when multi-tasking.
Scientific research is making the benefits clear. Studies show that mindfulness strengthens our immune systems, bolsters our concentrative powers, and rewires our brains. Just as lifting weights at the gym makes our muscles stronger, so too does practicing mindfulness make our minds stronger. And the most tried-and-true method of cultivating mindfulness is through meditation.
Gelles discusses the teachings of many key influencers in the development of the mindfulness movement. The rising popularity of meditative mindfulness in the West has its genesis in a retreat organized in the ’70s by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen Buddhist monk and teacher. One of his attendees, the University of Massachusetts psychologist Jon Kabat-Zinn, integrated Hanh’s teachings with yoga and medical science, and created the popular eight-week “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction” course. Over the decades, other psychologists developed mindfulness-based interventions that allow patients to observe their cognitive and behavioral processes.
Gelles summarizes much of the recent research that has confirmed the centuries-old Eastern wisdom about mindfulness practices. Developments in contemplative neuroscience have corroborated the effects that meditative mindfulness has on supporting the body’s immune system and counteracting the symptoms of burnout.
Indeed, mindfulness seems to change the brain in some specific ways. Broadly speaking, mindfulness increases activity in parts of the prefrontal cortex, an evolutionarily recent region of the brain that is important for many of the things that make us human. This region is the seat of much of our higher-order thinking-our judgment, decision making, planning, and discernment. The prefrontal cortex is also an area that seems to be more active when we are engaged in pro-social behavior—things like compassion, empathy, and kindness.
Some studies have shown that folks who practice meditation have a less perturbed amygdala. That means that the brain is less vulnerable to interpreting many flight-or-fight stimuli as threats and triggering anger, stress, or a defense reaction.
Meditative Mindfulness in the Emerging Context of Consumer Culture
Gelles warns that capitalism and commercialization could, due to many increasingly-visible entrepreneurial teachers, complicate something as seemingly simple as observing one’s breath and paying attention.
I’m sympathetic to the skeptics, who worry that a noble practice is being quickly corrupted by modern marketing. But having witnessed mindfulness in action for fifteen years, it is clear to me that rarely, if ever, does exposure to meditation make someone a worse person. On balance, the folks who become more mindful tend to be happier, healthier, and kinder. Nevertheless, it is worth addressing the various critiques of mainstream mindfulness, if only to put them to rest.
Even today, some of the most popular gurus in America have demonstrated a penchant for bling that strikes many as being out of touch with their mantra of inner peace. Bikram Choudhury, the litigious yoga teacher, cuts the figure of an oligarch, driving around Beverly Hills in a Rolls-Royce and sporting a gold-encrusted Rolex. A Thai monk with a taste for Louis Vuitton luggage and private jets had his assets frozen by authorities in 2013.
A Few Minutes a Day is All You Need to Reap the Benefits of Mindfulness
Recommendation: Read David Gelles’s Mindful Work. This helpful tome offers a succinct rundown of the benefits of mindfulness. In an era where our culture is increasingly questioning the frenzy of activity and reactivity that has entrenched the current way of life, mindfulness will continue to draw many mainstream practitioners for its ability to promote stress-reduction and produce improvements in one’s overall emotional state and outlook on life.
Indeed, mindfulness is about much more than simply observing sensations as they occur. It is about what happens to our minds, hearts, and actions when we deliberately continue these practices for weeks, months, and years. Mindfulness is a practice that allows us to achieve more sustainable happiness and to grow more compassionate. And over time, mindfulness requires one to confront thorny concepts like impermanence and compassion.