Chances are, most of us have heard the term ‘mindfulness’ before. This term has become an American buzzword and is even beginning to make a crossover from the yoga mat to the medical field. But, as familiar as the term may seem, when it really comes down to it, mindfulness can be not only a challenge to achieve but even a challenge to define.
“Be mindful of your breath,” your yoga instructor croons at you in downward dog, and your mind certainly is full. It’s full of what you have to do later, what you ate this morning, that conversation you had that you can’t seem to quit replaying in your head, and now she wants you to think about breathing too? Yeah, your mind is full of stuff.
This anecdotal experience can make the term mindfulness seem kind of counterintuitive because it’s this overflowing-mind sensation which many of us come to our mats to release.
Unpacking the complexity of this term and unlocking the experience of mindfulness calls us back to its roots. By understanding exactly what mindfulness is, we not only can become more proficient at achieving it but can come to understand it’s significance in the medical field and in personal wellness.
The Roots of ‘Mindfulness’
Mindfulness is a western term for the Pali Indian term sati. Sati was first roughly translated to English as ‘awareness,’ but even that is an oversimplification because it leaves us asking, “awareness on what?” Used in the original Buddhist context, sati is used to describe a type of awareness fixed on the present moment.
In the Buddhist teachings, the satipaṭṭhāna sutta, direct the practitioner to establish present moment ‘recollection’ right where you are. This recollection experience refers to a mental state in which one recollects, or remembers to return attention to present moment activity that one is currently engaged in.
The Buddhist teacher Anālayo, further explains that sati involves remembering to focus on “what is otherwise too easily forgotten: the present moment.” So, this helps us to understand the nature of the word more clearly as attention being brought to that which otherwise goes forgotten.
But perhaps the Westerner to best capture the true nature of sati most accurately in English was Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, who said mindfulness is “the awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.” This mindset is one which westerner typically not only forget but which our world demands we step away from as we attempt to process the past and plan the future in a fast-paced culture. We lead increasingly seated and physically inactive lives while our neurons fire at rapid speed to meet the demands of increasingly overstimulating lifestyles (Lomas, 2016).
If we think of the practice of yoga asana as something that helps bring us into balance given our sedentary lives, then perhaps we can think of mindfulness as the mental counterpart to that. The practice of mindful awareness on the present moment helps counteract the natural habitual patterns of overuse of future and past cognition. Thus, mindfulness helps bring us closer to balance mentally, and if we apply a mind-body perspective, (which suggests that the mind and body’s wellbeing are intricately interwoven and connected) it becomes easy to imagine the ways in which mindfulness can have a balancing and restorative effect on all levels of wellbeing, as this practice counteracts natural habitual patterns of the mind, thus influences the body.
Mindfulness as the Medicine
Researchers and medical practitioners who subscribe to the mind-body perspective of health have begun to research how mindfulness-based activities benefit human health. Research has included practices which cultivate the state of mindfulness including yoga, tai chi, and qigong. However, most research in the field examines mindfulness developed through the practice of mindfulness meditation, described as “those self-regulation practices that focus on training attention and awareness in order to bring mental processes under greater voluntary control and thereby foster general mental well-being and development and/or specific capacities such as calmness, clarity and concentration.” Some theorized benefits of the practice include enhanced self-control, objectivity, affect tolerance, enhanced flexibility, equanimity, improved concentration and mental clarity, emotional intelligence and the ability to relate to others and one’s self with kindness, acceptance, and compassion.
Additionally, researchers theorize that mindfulness meditation practice promotes metacognitive awareness (understanding of what they are doing and why), decreases rumination (repetitive thinking) via disengagement from perseverative cognitive activities (in other words, disengaging from habitual thought patterns) and enhances attentional capacities through gains in working memory. It is thought that these cognitive gains, in turn, contribute to effective emotion-regulation strategies. While these connections remain in the correlational stage and further research must be conducted before this theory is conclusive, there is a wealth of empirical research which demonstrates the benefits of mindfulness on human health (Davis, 2012).
Empirically Supported Benefits of Mindfulness
Studies suggest that mindfulness practices may help people manage stress levels, enhance coping and improve resilience in those with serious illness, and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression (Mindfulness Matters, 2012). This is consistent with other findings which show that mindfulness not only decreases anxiety and its negative emotional effect but also increases positive emotional affect. This may be related to why mindfulness meditation has also been shown to improve immune function. (Davis, 2012).
In addition to addressing disease, mindfulness enhances positive health, and many people who practice mindfulness report an increased ability to relax, greater enthusiasm for life and improved self-esteem (Mindfulness Matters, 2012).
Research using functional magnetic resonance imaging indicates that mindfulness shifts the practitioner’s ability to use emotional regulation strategies so that they actually experience emotion selectively, and that the emotions they experience may actually be processed differently in the brain.
Other studies have found a link between mindfulness meditation and measurable changes in the brain regions involved in the abilities of memory and learning as well. Mindfulness meditation increases mental processing speed. Working memory scores have been shown to improve with meditation practice. Another study found that mindfulness meditation practice and self-reported mindfulness were correlated directly with cognitive flexibility and attentional functioning, in other words, our ability to focus and suppress unnecessary info (a crucial element of learning). Mindfulness practices have also been shown to increase cognitive flexibility (the brains ability to transition from thinking about one concept to another), allowing the individual to integrate stimuli into the brain in less-automatic ways, allowing them to respond more adaptively to negative situations and recover more quickly if negative emotion is aroused within them.
Additionally, Mindfulness has been shown to enhance self-insight, morality, intuition and fear modulation, all functions associated with the brain’s middle prefrontal lobe area.
These skills extend to benefit interpersonal life, and indeed, mindfulness has been shown to increase relationship satisfaction. It simultaneously enhances one’s ability to express oneself in social situations and protects against negative relational stress.
Another vital benefit of mindfulness and one particularly important to anyone interested in positive health behaviors is that it encourages you to pay attention to your thoughts, your actions, and your body. That means that mindfulness can help you notice when you are engaging in mindless behaviors that negatively affect your wellbeing, such as overexerting or being inactive or overeating or undereating. In fact, research shows that mindful eating can be a powerful way for individuals to manage their dietary health and weight.
Studies have shown that mindfulness can help individuals achieve and maintain a healthy weight. By engaging in mindful eating practices, many people have been able to take control of mindless eating habits and steer themselves toward something that feels more mindful and healthier (Davis, 2012).
Thus, it begins to become clear that it is no wonder mindfulness has become integrated into the medical field, as it is obviously useful in altering affective and cognitive processes that underlie multiple clinical issues.
From a full mind to Mindfulness
The next time your mind is full, may the observer in you notice without judgment, my mind is full. May your observer gently guide your attention to the present moment. And as you do this, may your observer quietly commend you, for this is the practice. Remembering is mindfulness, and mindfulness is medicine.
Lomas, T. (2016). Where does the word ‘mindfulness’ come from? LIFE. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/where-does-the-word-mindfulness-come-from_b_9470546
Davis, D. (2012). What are the benefits of mindfulness? American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/07-08/ce-corner
Mindfulness Matters. (2012). National Institute of Health. https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/2012/01/mindfulness-matters