Mindfulness was defined by John Kabat-Zinn as, “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experiences moment by moment.”
Despite the surface-level simplicity of such an exercise or construct, the reality is that the premise of mindfulness in just ‘being’ is difficult, uncomfortable, and not the goal-oriented practice it is sometimes mistaken for.
Though mindfulness has more recently become a frontrunner in trending therapies, mindfulness has existed through it’s Buddhist roots as a philosophy and way of life – and been integrated across many contexts worldwide, ranging from breathing exercises to therapeutic interventions for stress, chronic pain and other DSM-defined mental disorders.
However, particularly in a switched on technological age, we undoubtedly need mindfulness in daily life. A Harvard study by psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Matthew A. Killingsworth found that people let their minds wander 47% of the day. Humans, it seems, are prone to daydreaming (the only activity where our minds aren’t wandering is during sex, not surprising that we can focus intently on the fun stuff). That is, mindfulness is a state of experiential consciousness that has the potential to provide an alternative from the tendency of multitasking, daydreaming, or ‘operating on autopilot’.
Mindfulness means taking a step back and allowing our thoughts to just be. However, the danger of mindfulness is in confusing it with a solutions-focused mentality. Importantly, mindfulness is not necessarily meant to be a positive or a goal-oriented practice and perhaps suggesting as such would take away from the experience, acceptance and awareness of the present at it is.
X does not necessarily equal Y; that is, practicing mindfulness does not necessarily mean that your stress dissipates (in reality, studies have shown that some people report feeling more anxious after practicing meditation as they were uncomfortable paying close attention to themselves). For most people, beginning mindfulness is uncomfortable both physically and psychologically.
As such, I like to consider mindfulness in line with some of the fundamental Buddhist notions from which it was derived, roughly, that there are no guarantees, that everything has the capacity to change or shift. Learning to ride the highs and lows and manage what is in our capacity is key. However, accepting things as they are does not necessarily give permission to wade in unhappy situations, but rather in allowing to accept the moment rather than wanting it to be different can bless us with self-awareness and provide us with the tools to manage other areas of our lives.
Mindfulness, then, has the potential to help in sitting with emotions, be they pleasant or unpleasant as they arise, and pave the way for the next experience. In a clinical example, mindfulness is used for those dealing with chronic pain, and involves acknowledging and accepting its presence and existing outside of it. The idea is not trying to ‘fix’ or deny parts of our lives that may be uncomfortable; the important part is acknowledge that it is there in the first place.
However, if we take a cognitive behavioural approach – that our feelings are an extension of our thoughts – then it is logical to see just why awareness is an important facet of potential behavioural changes or emotions-management. That is, if we don’t first notice our thoughts, acknowledge them, then how can we manage them? The point here is not that changes have to occur, but rather, it is that change can be a byproduct of the awareness which mindfulness can offer; if we accept things are the way they are, we can get a clearer image of ourselves and our circumstances outside of the white noise of day-to-day life.
Overall, the act of mindfulness is to increase awareness of our thoughts and emotions by acknowledging their existence. Whilst behavioural changes or relaxation can be a byproduct or ‘result’ of mindfulness, they are not the aim of due to its experiential nature and existence as a state of consciousness. Thus, if holding true to the fundamental notion of acceptance, transience and the experiential nature of the practice, the possibilities for integrating mindfulness into non-clinical population and maintaining its genuineness, is truly endless.