By Mary Ann Christie Burnside, EdD, founder and teacher.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness, which is a special way of paying attention, is often described as the cultivation of present moment awareness with acceptance instead of judgment. Also referred to as “mindful awareness,” it’s about noticing what we’re doing while we’re doing it, what we’re thinking when we’re thinking it, and how we’re feeling while we’re feeling it. With practice and intention, we deepen our innate capacities of awareness and compassion. We come to notice things and learn to hold them (and ourselves) with a kindness, curiosity and openness that’s not available to us when we’re unaware.
Mindfulness is not what you think. But it is a way to learn how our minds work. When we approach our selves, our experiences, and one another with mindful awareness, we are engaging all of our senses, which helps us remember that we are much more than our thoughts or feelings. Mindful awareness is an intentional choice. It’s a way of seeing and being in the world that embraces wellness. It’s really about being in healthy relationship to our selves and our experiences, not to mention everyone and everything else in our lives.
What is meditation?
Meditation is a practice that helps us to bring more and more moments of mindfulness into our daily lives. Usually mindfulness meditation involves sitting with as few outside distractions as possible, focusing our attention, and breathing regularly for 15-20 minutes. Our breath, which is always with us, is a way of inviting our awareness in. It’s unrealistic, although not uncommon, to expect that our minds will be quiet and that we will feel peaceful during meditation. We’re not trying to empty the mind, which is impossible, but to open it.
How can mindfulness and meditation help with stress?
Life can be stressful sometimes. Although we can’t remove all the stressors from our lives, we can change our relationship to stress. That’s where mindfulness and meditation come in.
Mindfulness is about learning to co-exist peacefully with what is present in our lives and meditation is a great way to practice. When we learn to allow what is already there to be there (rather than fight, deny, or control it), we automatically reduce our stress because we’re no longer struggling against our thoughts or feelings about what’s happening.
Research shows that a regular meditation practice builds stress resiliency and increases pro-social emotions, such as empathy. Mindfulness meditation changes the brain’s response to emotion by reducing activity in the areas that register negative emotions and increasing activity in the areas that register positive ones. It also counters the fight or flight response, which helps us relax and gives us quicker access to our pre-frontal cortex, which enables us to make conscious choices.
Besides alleviating the immediate physical and physiological symptoms of stress, mindfulness increases our capacity to cope more effectively with future stress in short and long-term situations.
What are other benefits of practicing mindfulness?
Mindfulness also increases awareness, self-regulation, and emotional well-being. Without benefit of mindfulness, we often act on our automatic thoughts, which can be inaccurate or untrue. When we begin to learn how our mind works by observing it, we learn how quickly thoughts change and how little control we have over the brain’s ongoing mental activity. Over time, this creates space – in our minds and in our lives – for us to make thoughtful, conscious choices, and to make a habit out of responding, rather than reacting.
Because mindfulness education involves contemplative trainings in awareness and compassion, it also helps us develop skills that support individual and relational well-being, such as acceptance, equanimity, kindness, generosity, gratitude, and perspective-taking.
Finally, mindfulness strengthens our immune system, contributes to cardiovascular health, and ameliorates chronic pain. New research is beginning to demonstrate its positive effects on aging.
Are mindfulness and meditation religious?
No. Mindfulness and meditation are not religious. But a mindfulness practice or a meditation practice can feel spiritual because we are waking up to our lives and getting to know ourselves, maybe for the first time. Mindfulness, also known as mindful awareness, is a human quality. Anyone can be mindful. In fact, we have access to mindfulness all the time, we’re just not used to working with it. To realize our capacity, we need skills. Meditation is a great way to practice these skills.
Who can benefit by cultivating a mindfulness practice?
Everyone can benefit. Because of the consistently positive outcomes that mindfulness yields across different domains and age groups, it continues to attract the attention of educators, scientists, physicians, and multidisciplinary researchers in our society and around the world.
Is a formal sitting meditation practice the only way to cultivate mindfulness?
No, but it helps. Sitting meditation is an exercise for our mind. The more we practice, the more we build and fine-tune a healthy relationship to our lives. Through a regular daily practice, we can train our brains, literally rewire them, in ways that support well-being in a number of dimensions. Some people find it helpful to sit with a group (see resource list below).
Yoga is also a form of mindfulness meditation. The series of yoga postures in a traditional yoga class are designed to build awareness of the mind-body connection, including breath awareness, and develop a variety of other skills and practices that support well-being. Like meditation, yoga is a practice that you could develop at home or find a group to practice with (see resource list below).
Another way to cultivate mindfulness is to have an informal practice of bringing mindful awareness to bear as often as you can in your daily life. You can set a daily intention to bring present moment awareness to your experiences as often as you can throughout the day. This would include noticing thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations, people, surroundings, and how you respond to all of that. You can use common sounds, like the ring on the phone, to remind yourself to stop and notice. You can also use everyday events, like entering or leaving a room, to remind you to stop and notice. For example, each time you enter or leave a room, notice three breaths and go on to notice whatever else there is to notice. It’s really all about awareness and practicing it with curiosity and kindness, rather than with judgment or resistance.
How can I start a mindfulness meditation practice?
First set an intention then follow through. You do not need any special equipment. Many people find that first thing in the morning is the best time for them. You do not have to sit formally for long periods of time at the start. Begin with a few minutes and build up to 30 minutes a day in increments of 5 minutes. Research suggests that even 20 minutes a day is beneficial.
Next, set an expectation that you will be distracted. Sometimes, these distractions will be around us, whereas other times they will be inside us (a thought or series of thoughts, a emotion, a physical sensation). From the perspective of mindfulness, this is all OK. Each distraction is not failure, but a success. Our breath is something we can return to, like an anchor, each time we are distracted. If it’s 10 times or 1,000 times the first time you try to meditate, just know that this is the practice. And remember that each time you bring yourself back to your breath, you’re training your brain. The act of returning to your awareness is the practice.
The most important thing to remember about meditation is that we are not trying to have a particular kind of experience. The idea is to let yourself have your experience, whatever it is. So be mindful of your expectations. Notice them but don’t let them get in your way.
How can I learn more?
Be in touch. Mindfulness is already yours and the opportunities to practice are limitless. What's needed is training and support.