Mindfulness is a buzz word that’s gotten the attention of many people. But once buzz words become popularized, they can easily lose the depth of their meaning. To return to what made this holistic practice so popular, let’s take a look at the meaning of mindfulness and how it can be used as a form of therapy to revolutionize the way a person lives their life.
The Meaning & Practice of Mindfulness
Mindfulness is the practice of being aware, in a non-judgmental way, of what is happening within and around you as it is happening. One form of mindfulness practice is seated meditation, an experience in which a practitioner remains still for period of time while they focus their attention on one point. For instance, it’s common to use the breath as the object of focus during meditation. However, you might also focus on an image, such as in Tibetan Buddhism. Some practitioners use words or a specific mantra to focus on, while others focus on the appearing and disappearing of sounds. Practicing mindfulness throughout the day is a wonderful way of extending the benefits of seated meditation into daily life.
However, it’s important to remember that practicing meditation and mindfulness is like going to the gym – you’re not going to see results until you’ve been doing it for awhile. But, surprisingly, if you’re practicing daily, it doesn’t take long before you start seeing benefits. In fact, practice mindfulness for a month and you may see your relationships change because of the increased level of attunement you have. You may notice your mind is more clear because of the insights, intuition, and greater awareness you have. You may notice your stress threshold become more resilient because of the decreased amount of fear and the new way in which you are responding to triggers. You may even notice yourself making life choices with greater integrity.
The Benefits of Mindfulness
Perhaps this sounds a little too good to be true. Mindfulness can’t turn us into angels. But it can change us in remarkable ways. Daniel Siegel, founding co-director of UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center and author of the book, The Mindful Brain, has been studying the effects of meditation on the brain for over 20 years. He has come to recognize that meditation and mindfulness can profoundly alter the way the brain functions. In fact, Siegel once outlined 9 benefits, of many, that an individual might experience when practicing meditation and mindfulness on a regular basis. These are:
- Emotional Balance –When emotions become too overwhelming, or when they are ignored and repressed, mental illness might result. For instance, many addicts turn to drugs and alcohol when their emotions are too much for them. In other cases, when emotions are stuffed or repressed, depression and anxiety might result. Yet, mindfulness can promote the ability to be receptive and open to emotions, which in turn creates a healthy emotional balance.
- Body Regulation – In science, to regulate means to control or maintain the rate or speed of something so that it operates properly. For instance, hormones regulate metabolism. In the same way, mindfulness can help regulate the body, especially when it goes into a state of fear. Anxiety and fear often trigger the fight-or-flight system, which activates the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. Mindfulness, on the other hand, turns on the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps to bring the body back in balance. As a result, the heart rate slows down, breathing becomes long and slow, and muscles in the body relax. This can be incredibly important for recovering addicts. Many addictions develop because of a learned pattern to turn to drinking or drugs when stress is high. However, learning to relax the body instead is a much healthier way to cope with stress.
- Fear Extinction – Not only does mindfulness assist with the way we respond to fear, as described above, but it also helps to unravel perceived triggers of fear so that they don’t stimulate the fight-or-flight response. Sometimes the fight-or-flight response is triggered by not only real stimuli, but imagined ones as well. For instance, those suffering from PTSD might re-experience a traumatic event, even though it is not happening in the present moment. However, mindfulness can deconstruct those inner triggers and help eliminate unnecessary experiences of fear and anxiety.
- Attuned Communication –Attuned communication is when two human beings feel connected with each other, as well as to a larger, resonating whole. You might feel this with your spouse, your children, and others that you love. Attunement is a part of healthy relationships and is even necessary in relationships between children and their parents. Tumultuous relationships in childhood might be another contributor to addiction. Learning how to have healthy, attuned relationships can support sobriety and even prevent relapse.
- Intuition – This is a type of knowing that is sourced from beyond the thinking mind. A mindfulness practice helps to wake up these inner resources and opens us to receive intuitive information from other sources within.
- Insight – You might describe insight as the ability to see in. It is a way of knowing oneself in deeper ways than thinking alone. Often, insight arises as a result of keeping attention focused and slowing down the pace of the mind.
- Empathy – With empathy, we have a greater capacity for compassion, healthy communication, and connection with others. Empathy is the ability to place yourself within the emotional landscape of another person. Empathy allows for connecting with the thoughts, ideas, attitudes of someone else. Mindfulness promotes our ability to be empathetic with others.
- Morality – Surprisingly, mindfulness can even affect how we might contribute to the good of the whole. Mindfulness can not only help us recognize what might be necessary for social transformation, but it can also help develop our abilities to take action. Mindfulness can support growth in moral behavior and decision-making.
- Response Flexibility – This is one of the greatest benefits of mindfulness. It is the ability to change your knee-jerk reactions to circumstances into more conscious responses. In other words, with mindful awareness, you learn to put a pause in between a trigger and a conditioned response. This can be an incredibly useful skill for recovering addicts. If, for example, you know that you always get red-hot angry whenever anyone dismisses what you have to say, response flexibility is your ability to pause between your internal reaction and the outer stimulus. Instead, you might develop the ability to observe the behaviors of others without judgment and not take it personally. Developing this pause gives a person great power in the way they respond to life.
Mindfulness in Your Life
Despite these incredible benefits, mindfulness is not taught in schools nor in most workplaces – perhaps because these practices have long been associated with religion or spirituality. Yet, mindfulness alone is not associated with a specific religion. Looking at mindfulness scientifically, as Dan Siegel has, indicates that meditation and mindfulness are not even all that spiritual.
Instead, these are practices that change the functioning of the brain and the body. For this reason, mindfulness and meditation are often therapeutic techniques used among many therapists, psychologists, and mental health professionals. Most importantly, these practices can change the way we relate to life itself.
In fact, if a person were to implement the daily practice of meditation coupled with the application of mindfulness, they may become kinder, wiser, and more sensitive to the moral good of the whole. It might appear that, with these holistic and therapeutic benefits, mindfulness can turn you into the person you want to be. Mindfulness can better our communities, relationships, and perhaps our planet. Mindfulness can’t make everyday angels out of us…or can it?