What Is Mindfulness?

tiny buddha meditating on a leaf

Mindfulness – most simply defined as present-moment, non-judgmental awareness – includes an attitude of openness, curiosity, kindness and patience. At its core, mindfulness is an acceptance of the present moment, and a willingness to be with our experience of the here and now. Rather than trying to resist, attach to, run from or control a given experience, mindfulness teaches us to detach from our judgments and perceptions. By practicing such non-attachment, we are able to achieve a stable and consistent sense of inner peace that isn’t altered by external factors. So many of us rest our happiness on “things going our way”: we rely on certain “happy” events or preferred outcomes to give us a sense of well-being. When things don’t go our way, however, our happiness is taken away. In relying on external factors to give us peace of mind, we disempower ourselves and become as volatile as twigs being blown about by the wind.

Essentially, mindfulness teaches us that we are not the voice in our heads. Rather, mindfulness shows us that our thoughts are merely “contents of consciousness” that can be observed (Brown et al., 2007). —As a result, “the activity of conceptual thought can be engaged and disengaged more choicefully, and because one can be aware of thoughts as thoughts, and their accompanying emotions as simply reactions to them, thoughts are less likely to be colored by beliefs, prejudices and other biases that are not supported by objective or experiential evidence” (Brown et al., 2007, p. 213). Mindfulness gives us the freedom to respond to our experience as we choose, as opposed to reacting to it.

Mindfulness research – which has become increasingly popular in the last decade – has proven the numerous physical and psychological health benefits of the practice. Jon Kabat-Zinn, accredited with formalizing mindfulness into a medical intervention, created the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program (MBSR) over 30 years ago, after his research with chronic pain patients revealed that mindfulness led to significant reductions in pain, anxiety and depression (click here to watch Kabat-Zinn explain the neuroscience behind mindfulness).

Since that time, interest in, and the applicability of, mindfulness has greatly expanded: among other benefits, mindfulness has been shown to regulate brain, endocrine and immune functioning; enhance positive emotion, quality of life and perceived wellbeing; and reduce stress.

How to Practice Mindfulness: 

  1. Be intentional: choose to pay attention to the present moment, whatever you’re doing or experiencing.

  2. Observe your thoughts: let your judgments pass through your mind like clouds moving across the sky or captions on a tv screen. Notice them but don’t “follow them down the rabbit hole”.

  3. Return to the here and now: The practice of mindfulness is one of constantly returning your awareness to the present moment. Pema Chodron compares this practice to training a small puppy to stay – the mind (and the puppy) will constantly wander off, so our job is to patiently and gently nudge our thinking back to this moment (a helpful technique is using the breath as an anchor).

That’s it! The key to it all is to be kind to yourself. Mindfulness and meditation are hard practices, and the point is not to judge or criticize our wandering thoughts; rather, we try to use these practices as opportunities to learn self-compassion.