I first heard the term "mindfulness" when I learned about Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in my mental health counseling graduate program. We were taught MBSR along with many other approaches and techniques for working with therapy clients. The professor taught us that MBSR was an evidence-based treatment that trained attention and awareness of one's body and mind and that it was effective in reducing stress, anxiety, depression, and pain.
Today, I can't go 24 hours without hearing the word "mindfulness". I am more likely to hear it because I am a yoga teacher and therapist, but I would bet that you've heard it talked about a lot more in the past few years, too. Am I correct?
This is not a bad thing, of course! Mindfulness is a wonderful and incredibly beneficial practice. I do believe, though, that it can get lost in the jargon of the wellness world and so I want to break it down since language is something I'm trying to be more, well, mindful of as I go into a new decade.
Mindfulness has its roots in ancient meditation in traditions and religions like Buddhism and Hinduism. In Buddhism, for example, mindfulness (Sati) is one of the main steps towards enlightenment. In 1979, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a student of mindfulness under many Buddhist teachers including Thich Nhat Hanh, opened the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School where he eventually developed MBSR.
Since then, mindfulness has "popularized" and turned into a movement that has expanded beyond traditional practices, especially within the wellness industry. In fact:
Needless to say, "mindfulness" has worked its way into our daily vocabulary.
Mindfulness is most concisely described as "present moment awareness". When I first explained this to a client, he said, "Oh, so just like, 'being in the moment'?" Yes, pretty much. He went on to say that although that seems like a great thing to strive for, it is a very abstract concept.
I couldn't agree more. Although most of us nod our heads in comprehension when we hear "present moment awareness," do we know what this actually means and feels like?
I didn't. I had a hard time explaining what it actually means to be present besides reciting jargon from a textbook. I knew I had experienced it before, but it was fleeting and difficult to articulate.
What helped me understand the actual experience of mindfulness was to look at the sensation of it (I promise this isn't more jargon!). I think of it in terms of the five senses (sight, touch, hearing, smell, taste).
If I bring my attention to the feeling of pavement underneath my foot each time I take a step and hold that attention - that's mindfulness. If I eat a strawberry and chew it slow enough that the tarty sweetness can swirl over my tastebuds - that's mindfulness. If I "stop and smell the roses" - you guessed it. For that particular moment, whether it's a few seconds or minutes, we experience a profound connection with that sense and any object that sense is taking in.
This implies a bodily experience of mindfulness and, to me, this is where the difference between mindfulness and meditation comes in.
Mindfulness has one more key ingredient that helped me understand it: giving attention to one thing at a time. When I tell you to "bring yourself to the moment," you realize how many thousands of things you could be focusing on in the moment. So mindfulness is also choosing one of those things, like one object interacting with one of our senses, and attending to that.
Now that we've cleared up mindfulness (at least a little!), it's time to say it straight:
Most of us have experienced it for a fleeting moment, and if we're lucky, maybe even several minutes. Anything longer than that can feel unattainable. Most of us don't have lives that can support that kind of prolonged "mindful living"; we've got jobs, people, and plenty of other things to worry about!
I don't know if there is. Part of the human condition is the ability to process (or dwell on) the past and plan for (or worry about) the future. Even if we could practice hours of mindfulness every day, it's likely at some point that we would have to "come out" of the moment.
What I will say is there's a way to expand the sensation of mindfulness outside of the exercises you do to practice it. For example, if you allow yourself ten minutes a day to experience yourself and your senses completely in the moment, you will become more and more familiar with that profound connection I was referring to earlier. You may even get to a point where you can access that sensation of connection without having to go through a whole exercise to get there. This will make you able to achieve that present moment awareness - mindfulness - more often and easily.