Mindfulness is about being alive and knowing it. It is a way of reconnecting with something that came easily to many of us as small children: dwelling in the present moment, paying attention to what’s happening right now with openness, without preconceptions, with what we might call a ‘beginner’s mind’. It’s about bringing a friendly curiosity to our experience: investigating it with kindness; not trying to change what’s here.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, who developed the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programme (MBSR) in the late 1970s, says it means:

‘paying attention in a particular way:
On purpose,
in the present moment, and
non judgmentally.’

Mindfulness is the innate human ability to be fully present but we sometimes find this needs a bit of cultivating. Using an integrative, mind-body based approach we can get more in touch with the way we think and feel about experiences. We begin to notice the habit of getting lost in thoughts, mostly about the future or the past, and the way this can add to the inevitable stresses of daily life. By patiently observing the way the mind chatters and gently and patiently escorting it back to the here and now, we begin to notice ourselves approaching life more calmly and making more positive choices.

Is there evidence that it works?
Research over the past thirty years in the fields of medicine, neuroscience and psychology has shown the wide-ranging benefits of practising mindfulness. Since Jon Kabat-Zinn launched the MBSR program, at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979, thousands of studies have documented the physical and mental health benefits of mindfulness. It has been demonstrated to help reduce the stress that can undermine quality of life. When practised regularly, mindfulness can help in the treatment of many mental and physical health issues, as well as generally improving relationships, and well-being. (Kabat-Zin 2009 and Grossman et al 2004).

Mindfulness and the body:

Mindfulness-based approaches have been shown to increase blood flow, reduce blood pressure and protect people at risk of developing hypertension, as well as reducing the risk of developing cardiovascular disease (Seigel 2012). Generally, people who meditate have fewer hospital visits for heart, disease and cancer. In terms of visits to the doctor, the figure is halved for people practising mindfulness.  There is also a growing body of research showing how mindfulness can help relieve physical pain and  suffering, thus improving quality of life in chronic pain conditions. 

Mindfulness is NOT:

  • relaxation
  • challenging thoughts
  • a distraction from negative thoughts and feelings
  • a magic wand to make us feel better

But it is:

  • A way of living. It means waking up to the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the present moment and bringing awareness, curiosity and kindness into everything we do.
  • A way of connecting: with our bodies, with our thoughts and with our feelings as they happen moment to moment. In this way we become more aware of them, and ultimately less attached to them. Instead of struggling with thoughts and feelings, and finally arguing with them, we can notice them in a compassionate and interested way. This creates room for more thoughtful decisions and space to choose how to act in difficult circumstances.
  • A help in liberating us from automatic set reaction patterns that are not consciously made. Through focusing on how things are in a non-judgemental way, we can see what is actually happening more accurately and respond in a more effective way.

Further reading:

Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn (2013)

Mindfulness: a Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World by Mark Williams and Danny Penman (2011)

Mindfulness in Eight Weeks by Michael Chaskalson (2014)

Mindfulness for Health: a Practical Guide to Relieving Pain, Reducing Stress and Restoring Wellbeing by Vidyamala Burch and Danny Penman (2013)

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness and the brain: Neuroscience has found strong differences in the area of the brain associated with awareness, attention and decision making in people who regularly practise mindfulness (Siegel 2012). In general, there is an increase in the activation of the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that is linked to positive emotions and is less active for people that are experiencing any level of depression. Furthermore, increased time spent in meditation results in increased brain size in areas linked to emotional regulation, in particular in the hippocampus, the orbital-frontal cortex, the thalamus and the inferior temporal lobe.