Talk of mindfulness has become ubiquitous these days. Any quick Google search will turn up articles claiming to offer practical applications of mindfulness. From managing stress to addictions treatment and mental health issues, mindfulness seems to be that cure-all for our times.
However, the actual practice of mindfulness is a serious undertaking. Daily practice is designed to institute meaningful changes in behavior, thought, and spiritual well-being. These types of practice do require work and real daily practice in order to achieve the benefit.
Mindfulness meditation and practice, as we currently understand it, has its origins in the work of psychologist Jon Kabat-Zinn. Kabat-Zinn first introduced some of the practices of Buddhist meditation into the treatment of psychological issues and problematic. As a result, Kabat-Zinn discovered was that the processes and judgements by which we experience our thoughts and emotions have more to do with the pathological problems which stem from these thoughts and emotions.
What We Can Control
We have little control over the types of very real problems which precipitate negative feelings. But with training, in the case mindfulness meditation, we can learn to control the way we manage these negative experiences. In mindfulness training, you learn the ability to become aware of and redirect your negative judgements of experiences. The process of understanding these judgements is the core of what makes mindfulness a useful practice.
The goal is to orient our thoughts away from pre-programmed judgements and focus entirely on the present moment. Jon Kabat-Zinn said, “Mindfulness is the capacity to be in the present moment without judgment” By learning to relieve ourselves of judgements, we are better able to process thoughts, ideas, and feelings in productive ways.
One study published in Psychological Inquiry clearly demonstrated that mindfulness training produces demonstrably better results than more conventional therapeutic methods of self-control exercises. These results show to substantially help with common problems like depression and anxiety, but they have also found clinically provable benefits in pain management and other areas with physiological causes. It seems that learning to control the way we process thoughts and feelings can have a substantial impact on mental and physical well-being.
As stated from outset, mindfulness is in fact a serious undertaking which requires effort and practice. We can find any number of fluff articles which promise simple steps on how to “cure” everything through mindfulness training. But the truth is it takes some work. Like any other exercise, the little steps lead to big steps, and real results start happening almost without us being aware of them.
As a starting place, Kabat-Zinn stresses that the core of mindfulness meditation is focusing on our breath. In the Buddhist tradition from which mindfulness originates, breathing is the physiological core of both body and mind. We begin any practice which impacts the body, mind, and spirit by focusing on our breathing.
If we imagine the breath as the thread which ties our lives into one coherent series of events, we can begin to see how the breath is so important. As with all aspects of mindfulness practice, we begin by focusing on breathing, but we do not try to control the breath. This is critical. Do not attempt to regulate your breathing or focus your breathing. Simply focus on breathing. See how it ebbs and flows, the rate, the way breathing immediately effects how we feel in the moment.
3 Simple Steps
From this initial step, there are three simple steps which will lead us toward a meaningful mindfulness practice.
- Awareness: Adopt and erect a dignified posture. Still focusing on the breath, begin to take notice of what your are feeling regardless of the feeling. Again, it is important to try not to control the thoughts and feelings. Simply allow them to come and pass through with as little conscious intervention as possible.
- Gathering: This step reminds us to re-focus on our breathing. By returning to the breath, we are able to return to a center. The thoughts and feelings have come, now we return to a present center with no attempt to process or judge the thoughts and feelings.
- Expanding: Moving our conscious thoughts outward, we now focus on the body—how we feel in this moment, are we tense or relaxed, are we reacting physically to all that is happening. The breath will become a kind of autopilot which will ground and center our experience and keep returning us to the present.
Of course, all of this sounds easy, but putting it into practice requires some discipline. Our thoughts and feelings are so intimately tied to forms of judgement that cutting that judgement can be a difficult process.
Continuing these three basic steps will produce positive results. As stated above, there is clinical evidence that this type of mindfulness meditation impacts not only our mental and emotional well-being in positive ways, but also our improves physical health.