Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention to the present. This state is described as observing one’s thoughts and feelings without judging them as good or bad.
To live mindfully is to live in the moment and reawaken oneself to the present, rather than dwelling on the past or anticipating the future. To be mindful is to observe and label thoughts, feelings, sensations in the body in an objective manner. Mindfulness can therefore be a tool to avoid self-criticism and judgment while identifying and managing difficult emotions.
Mindfulness is rooted in Buddhist and Hindu teachings. Buddhism includes a journey toward enlightenment, and the concept of “sati,”—which encompasses attention, awareness, and being present—is considered the first step toward enlightenment. The term was roughly translated from the ancient language Pali into the term “mindfulness.”
The emergence of mindfulness in Western culture can be attributed to Jon Kabat-Zinn. Kabat-Zinn studied mindfulness under several Buddhist teachers, such as Philip Kapleau and Thich Nhat Hanh. As a professor at the University of Massachusetts medical school in the late 1970s, Kabat-Zinn developed a program called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) to treat chronic pain. He discovered that patients would often try to avoid pain—but that that avoidance would lead to deeper distress. Practicing mindfulness was a more successful approach.
As mindfulness shifted into mainstream science and medicine, it became a pivotal therapeutic technique; it was integrated into Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, among others.
Mindfulness encompasses two key ingredients: awareness and acceptance. Awareness is the knowledge and ability to focus attention on one’s inner processes and experiences, such as the experience of the present moment. Acceptance is the ability to observe and accept—rather than judge or avoid—those streams of thought.
The goal of mindfulness is to cultivate perspective on one’s consciousness and identity that can bring greater peace mentally and relationally. Mindfulness may also be used in mindfulness-based therapies, to address stress, anxiety, or pain, and simply to become more relaxed.
A person’s experience of time tends to be subjective and heavily influenced by their emotional state. Fears and insecurities about the past and the future can make it difficult to fully appreciate the present. The key is learning how to pay attention.
Mindfulness can take place through meditation sessions or smaller moments throughout the day. To cultivate a state of mindfulness, you can begin by sitting down and taking deep breaths. Focus on each breath and the sensations of the moment, such as sounds, scents, the temperature, and the feeling of air passing in and out of the body.
Shift your attention, then, to the thoughts and emotions that you’re experiencing. Allow each thought to exist without judging it or ascribing negativity to it. Sit with those thoughts. The experience may evoke a strong emotional reaction. Exploring that response can be an opportunity to address or resolve underlying challenges.
To cultivate awareness, observe your thoughts and emotions and explore why those specific ideas might be surfacing. To cultivate acceptance, avoid judging or pushing away unpleasant thoughts. Emotions are natural and everyone has them—acknowledging them can help you understand yourself better and move forward.
Mindfulness can help bring you into the present moment throughout the day. As you wake up, you can focus on your breathing and the way your body gradually becomes more energized. You can incorporate a brief meditation into your work day, perhaps on your lunch break, and focus and appreciate the experience of eating during meals.
The Benefits of Mindfulness
Mindfulness is frequently used in meditation and certain kinds of therapy. Its benefits include lowering stress levels, reducing harmful ruminating, and protecting against depression and anxiety. Research even suggests that mindfulness can help people better cope with rejection and social isolation.
Review studies suggest that mindfulness-based interventions can help reduce anxiety, depression, and pain. To a lesser extent, they can alleviate stress and improve quality of life. However, inconsistencies in the way mindfulness is defined and measured make it difficult to determine whether mindfulness really provides other benefits.
Mindfulness encompasses awareness and acceptance, which can help people understand and cope with uncomfortable emotions, allowing them to gain control and relief. To cultivate these skills, concentrate on breathing to lengthen and deepen your breaths. Foster an awareness of the five senses. Notice your thoughts and feelings, and practice curiosity and self-compassion.