How does one explain mindfulness?
Mindfulness is hard to define as it is something that is inherently personal and shifts form when we put it into our own cultural context, and our own experience. Let us divide the term it into the two traditional uses.
1. Mindfulness can refer to the state of being conscious or aware, being mindful of something.
2. Mindfulness can refer to the mental state, or philosophy, of focusing on the present, being in the moment, and acceptance of the realities of emotion, thought, and external situation.
Is this division apt? Or is this the same usage of the term? What if mindfulness is simply the power over our cognition, the power to control and choose the object of our attention?
What is cognition?
The brain is the control centre of our body and the home of our mind. The mind is our consciousness, which allows us define ourselves. We experience emotion and thoughts through our mind. Cognition is a mechanism by which we acquire knowledge and analyze it in the context of our thoughts and feelings to solve problems, and ultimately to control our world through determining our actions. Attention is a specific cognitive function, arguably the base function, and a necessity to enable all higher level cognitive processes. We cannot memorize something that we did not attend to; we cannot solve problems unless we attend to this process; we cannot experience the world unless we attend to it.
Attending to our minds – our thoughts and feelings – has the power to shape our brain. We know that the brain is plastic – it can be changed by our thoughts and experiences. We do have the ability, through our thoughts, to influence the chemistry and connections in our brains. Mindfulness and meditation have the potential to reduce stress, depression, and anxiety, ( Khoury, et al., 2013), to change electrical activity in the brain and positively impact immune function (Davidson et al., 2003; Hölzel et al., 2011). Essentially, through mindfulness we can impact not only our mind and mood, but also our brains’ physiological function.
What are the tenets of mindfulness?
1. Acceptance. This is of twofold importance to mindfulness.
a. First we need to accept that we may not always be completely mindful, present and focused.
Our bodies were designed, through thousands of years of evolution, to survive. Part of that survival is the capacity to respond to immediate threats. Thus when we empty our minds and try to meditate, or when we are engrossed in an activity, other thoughts will still pop up in our minds. This is completely normal. Imagine meditating in a quiet room in an office building and the fire alarm goes off. You will surely notice it because it is important to your survival. In fact there are forms of meditation that specifically target noticing all of the thoughts, emotions, and sensations that pop up, then accepting them and letting them go.
b. Second, we need to accept and not judge ourselves.
We may have no control over our immediate external situation. Furthermore, most of us rarely have control over the reflexive emotions these situations elicit; and little more control over their corresponding reflexive thoughts. Consequently expecting to be able to ignore them completely and focus elsewhere is not practical. Allow yourself to accept your emotions for what they are objectively; to accept your thoughts and accept yourself. Allow yourself to control your current experience: what you focus on, what you engage, and the actions you take. Acceptance of one’s reality is the first step towards insight and happiness.
2. Be in the present moment.
Think about moments when you felt the happiest. These moments, do they occur when you are entirely engaged in the present? Likely you thought of times with family and friends, or playing a sport you love, or engaged in an activity you value. These are situations where you are fully immersed in that activity, therefore living in the present. For many of us, we tended to spend our childhood living in the present. Do you remember how good food tasted then? Or how much fun it was to go to Canada’s Wonderland with your family? We are often happiest when we live in the present moment (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Typically thoughts about the past and future are less pleasant, we worry about the future, and we ruminate over the past. A core component of mindfulness is living in the present time, experiencing the present moment. The present is the only time when our actions can impact the world and, more importantly, our perception of the world.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow. The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper Perennial.
Davidson, R. J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli, S. F., … & Sheridan, J. F. (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65(4), 564-570. doi:10.1097/01.PSY.0000077505.67574.E3
Hölzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S. M., Gard, T., & Lazar, S. W. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 191, 36-43. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006
Khoury, B., Lecomte, T., Fortin, G., Masse, M., Therien, P., Bouchard, V., … & Hofmann, S. G. (2013). Mindfulness-based therapy: A comprehensive meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 33(6), 763-771. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2013.05.005