“Knowing what you are doing while you are doing it is the essence of mindfulness practice.”
These are the words of Jon Kabat-Zinn, pulled from chapter one of his seminal work, Full Catastrophe Living.
Kabat-Zinn is known as the founder of Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), an intensive program developed at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in the late 1970s. The program was designed to help people manage stress, pain, anxiety, and improve their sleep. Kabat-Zinn’s work, while thorough and quite immersive (participants enroll in an eight-week program), is rooted in an uncomplicated truth about mindfulness meditation — that at its core, it is simply the expression of present moment awareness.
In Kabat-Zinn’s words,
“We practice mindfulness by remembering as best we can—and that means with considerable kindness toward ourselves as well as with some resolve and discipline—to be present in all our waking moments.”
No matter how, or where, or when you practice, presence is the heart and soul of mindfulness.
What is mindfulness meditation?
Today, with apps and YouTube tutorials and podcasts to guide us, it can be hard to remember that mindfulness meditation has been a key piece of cultural and religious expression for thousands of years.
Evidence of mindfulness practice and meditation in general has been found in prehistoric wall art dating as far back as 5,000 to 3,500 BCE. “The images depict people sitting in what many of us would recognize as meditation postures. In other words, the figures sat on the ground with crossed legs, hands resting on their knees, and their eyes slightly narrowed but not completely closed” [Puff, Psychology Today].
What’s particularly important to note about the history of mindfulness is that it’s not relegated to one specific method or regimented practice. Mindfulness is amorphous. Unlike other meditation practices, mindfulness meditation does not require a designated space or particular set of mantras. Those things can intensify the practice, but ultimately, mindfulness meditation can be practiced anywhere.
The core tenets are attention and breath. As any guided mindfulness practice will emphasize, being aware of how your body feels, how you are breathing, and allowing your thoughts to drift — not trying to force any particular thought pattern or result — is all it takes to begin integrating a mindfulness practice into your life.
As with most things, the more you do it, the easier it becomes, and the more you’ll find yourself thinking mindfully in day to day activities. This is the power of meditation. It possesses an accessible, intrinsic quality that is just hangin’ out within us, waiting for our conscious mind to retrieve it.
The benefits of are extensive, and can often be felt immediately. For one thing, when our mind slows down, the whole world brightens. It’s science.
The science of mindfulness
According to an article published in the Harvard Gazette,“Previous studies have suggested that attention can be used to regulate the alpha rhythm and, in turn, sensory perception. When an individual anticipates a touch, sight, or sound, the focusing of attention toward the expected stimulus induces a lower alpha wave height in cortical cells that would handle the expected sensation, which actually “turns up the volume” of those cells.” By slowing down and simplifying, we actually amplify our sensory perceptions.
This of course, is not all we do when we are mindful.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that the medical benefits of meditation became a serious area of study, and since then, we’ve come to understand just how profound and sweeping those benefits can be. Mindfulness meditation has been shown to substantially reduce anxiety, improve sleep, and decrease stress. Additionally, according to recent research published in UC Berkeley’s “Greater Good Magazine,” so is mindfulness meditation.
- Beneficial to the heart:“Research suggests that meditation can increase respiratory sinus arrhythmia, the natural variations in heart rate that happen when we breathe that indicate better heart health and an increased chance of surviving a heart attack.”
- Good for memory: “People tend to lose some of their cognitive flexibility and short-term memory as they age. But mindfulness may be able to slow cognitive decline, even in people with Alzheimer’s disease.”
- Good for the immune system:“When we encounter viruses and other disease-causing organisms, our bodies send out troops of immune cells that circulate in the blood. These cells, including pro- and anti-inflammatory proteins, neutrophils, T-cells, immunoglobulins, and natural killer cells, help us to fight disease and infection in various ways. Mindfulness, it turns out, may affect these disease-fighting cells.”
- Keeping us young:“Cell aging occurs naturally as cells repeatedly divide over the lifespan and can also be increased by disease or stress. Proteins called telomeres, which are found at the end of chromosomes and serve to protect them from aging, seem to be impacted by mindfulness meditation.”
- Good for the mind-body connection: Mindfulness “impacts our psychological well-being, which, in turn, affects physical health. In fact, it’s quite likely that these changes have synergistic effects on one another.”
What’s most important to remember about mindfulness meditation is that once you begin to think mindfully, to pay attention not for the sake of paying attention but because you truly want to be here now, you really can do it anywhere.
Mindfulness is free, and when we get out of our own way, our minds and bodies know exactly how to practice it.