By Lauren Karnowski, MA (in progress)
It seems like mindfulness is everywhere today! You may see mindfulness pop up in commercials for meditation apps, a workshop in your workplace, a pamphlet at your doctor’s office, a wellness day at your child’s school, or in a post in your Instagram feed. Mindfulness is often perceived as a buzzword and a “health trend” that has recently exploded in popularity, but it is actually a practice that has been around for thousands of years. With so many avenues of mindfulness being prevalent today and the contrast between it being a trending topic and ancient practice, you may be more confused about mindfulness than ever. To help give you some clarity, here are 5 things you may not have known about mindfulness:
- The goal of mindfulness is NOT for you to feel more relaxed. This may be very surprising to you! Mindfulness is often conflated with meditation, which is why a common misconception is that the goal of mindfulness is to relax. Meditation is a formal practice in which increased relaxation IS a goal; however, mindfulness is more of a way of being, rather than a formal practice, and the goal of mindfulness is to increase attention of the present moment. Notice the last phrase there: present moment. Your present moment may be frustrating, sad, confusing, content, joyful, or maybe no emotion at all. Whatever is present for you, that is ok! You are being mindful as long as you are noticing. Relaxation is NOT the goal. Being aware of the current moment, both externally and internally, is. 😌
- You do not have to be religious to practice mindfulness. Although mindfulness does have its origins in Buddhism dating back to around 500 BC, the mindfulness that is practiced in Western nations today has been modified and is largely secular. The mindfulness practices you may be familiar with today stem from the 1970’s when Jon Kabat-Zinn, a physician at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, created Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction as an alternative treatment for patients with chronic pain. Jon Kabat-Zinn modified Buddhist mindfulness principles, secularized them, and made mindfulness accessible to anyone. Mindfulness is simply paying attention to the present moment on purpose, and although this can (and has been) incorporated into several religions (prayer in Christianity, the five daily prayers in Islam, the observance of Shabbat in Judaism, and formal meditation in Buddhism to name a few), you do not have to be religious to practice being in the moment.
- Mindfulness does not require you to clear your mind of thoughts. This may be surprising to you as well, especially if you pictured mindfulness being a state only achievable by Buddhist monks or yogis who completely empty their minds of thoughts for hours on end. Not only is this emptying of the mind untrue of mindfulness, but studies have shown that even Buddhist monks very seasoned in mindfulness and meditation are unable to completely focus their attention on a singular target for more than a few seconds (4.1 seconds compared to 2.6 seconds in the general population). With mindfulness, we acknowledge that our brains will constantly try to pull us away from the present moment by either producing thoughts about the future or the past. By practicing mindfulness, we pull our attention back to the present moment, gently and non-judgmentally, each time we notice our attention drifting. Our “mindfulness muscle” gets stronger each time we do this, even if we have to pull our attention back every 2.6 seconds!
- Research shows numerous psychological and physical benefits of mindfulness. You may not have known that mindfulness has been researched and has been linked to many benefits to mental health and the physical body! The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health recently published this article outlining some of this research and its findings. Some notable findings include the following: mindfulness meditation worked just as well as cognitive behavioral therapy and antidepressant medication in treating anxiety and depression; mindfulness-based stress reduction was associated with a significant reduction in blood pressure in people with hypertension, diabetes, or cancer; mindfulness-based approaches to substance use disorder treatment significantly decreased participants’ craving levels; and mindful meditation was as effective as prolonged exposure therapy at reducing PTSD symptoms and depression in veterans with PTSD.
- You can practice mindfulness anywhere: Since the goal of mindfulness is NOT to relax into a peaceful state of oblivion where your mind is completely empty and IS to rather focus on the present moment with intention and awareness, mindfulness is safe to practice anywhere! Although mindfulness can be done “formally” by sitting or lying down in a quiet space, it can also be done “informally” while going about your daily life. You can practice mindfulness by taking in your surroundings while driving, fully paying attention to your friend during a conversation, checking into your body sensations while exercising, or naming your emotions during a disagreement at work or at home. Remember, mindfulness is a way of being, so it can be incorporated anytime, anywhere!
We highly value mindfulness here at The Center for Mindfulness & CBT, and we would love to help you in your mindfulness journey, whether you are just getting started or are experienced. Many of our therapists incorporate mindfulness principles into their sessions, and we also offer several mindfulness courses. Lauren, along with Katie Bucklen, MD, FAAP, will be leading an Introduction to Mindfulness course on Monday nights from March 20th to April 24th, 2023. Click here for course details and to register.