What is mindfulness and what is it good for?

Mindfulness seems to be everywhere, from mindful eating to mindful leadership. And while that’s entirely admiral it doesn’t really tell us what mindfulness is.

Mindfulness can be defined as – “the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to the experiences occurring moment to moment and without judgement.”

For me that’s a little vague so the best way to explain mindfulness it through the analogy of health. Health can be abstract as well, but we usually know when we feel healthy and when we’re feeling unhealthy. Also we usually know when we are doing or eating something that is unhealthy versus healthy. So mindfulness is something we all already possess but through practice we can cultivate it to be stronger. Just like an athlete trains regularly so that they can be ready to compete when needed, we can also do contemplative practices, such as meditation, to cultivate mindfulness.

Mindfulness can be applied to many areas of life but for me, at least, the single greatest benefit is the ability to think and be aware I am thinking.

Here’s is what neuroscientist Sam Harris has to say on the matter from his book Waking Up:

“In the beginning of one’s meditation practice, the difference between ordinary experience and what one comes to consider “mindfulness” is not very clear, and it takes some training to distinguish between being lost in thought and seeing thoughts for what they are. In this sense, learning to meditate is just like acquiring any other skill. It takes many thousands of repetitions to throw a good jab or to coax music from the strings of a guitar. With practice, mindfulness becomes a well-formed habit of attention, and the difference between it and ordinary thinking will become increasingly clear. Eventually, it begins to seem as if you are repeatedly awakening from a dream to find yourself safely in bed. No matter how terrible the dream, the relief is instantaneous. And yet it is difficult to stay awake for more than a few seconds at a time.

My friend Joseph Goldstein, one of the finest vipassana teachers I know, likens this shift in awareness to the experience of being fully immersed in a film and then suddenly realizing that you are sitting in a theater watching a mere play of light on a wall. Your perception is unchanged, but the spell is broken.”

To be aware of thinking in the moment – especially those moments when we need it most, such as arguments, high pressure environments, anxiety inducing experiences – gives us the gift of choice.

The psychologist and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl says: “Between stimulus and response there is space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

With less mindfulness:

Stimulus > response

With greater mindfulness:

Stimulus > choice > response

Mindfulness drives the wedge of choice between stimulus and response. When we are lost in thought we don’t have the ability to choose which thoughts to follow. To be able to disentangle your self from the reactivity of your thoughts and begin to choose how you respond allows for greater mastery over your general wellbeing.

To come full-circle – mindful eating and mindful leadership are examples of where you can get a little more granular with it’s application. You may have decided that you want to lose some weight or eat healthier. Are you aware that you will habitually snack on some nuts should someone place a bowl of them in front of you even if you aren’t hungry? Are you aware of when you are full when eating a meal? Maybe you want to your employees to respect you more. Are you aware of how you are perceived by them when you tell them to do one thing and do another yourself? Are you aware of how you celebrate their successes in relation to giving constructive feedback?

Mindfulness allows us to untangle ourselves from our habitual responses.

Meditation is a deliberate form of practice that cultivates mindfulness just as exercise does for our health. Greater health is a foundational value that supports our lives in a myriad of ways, such as a stronger immune system, the ability to play with our children without getting out of breath or being mobile enough to pick something off the floor. And it’s benefits compound. Those who exercise regularly are healthier than those who do it once a week, so the more you flex your mindfulness muscles the better able you’ll be to call on it when needed.

What do you think – is mindfulness as important to your life as health? Are you cultivating it in your own life and if so how?

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