What is Mindfulness Anyway?

Lately, it seems that mindfulness is everywhere. Time magazine did a cover piece on mindfulness, The Mindful Revolution, and a Special Issue on How the Mind Can Heal Your Body. Mindful magazine is on the stands at your local Whole Foods. Epic Burger touts itself as having “a mindful burger.” Corporations like Google, Target and Ford are offering their employees mindfulness training aimed at reducing stress and improving focus and productivity. After having a near death experience, the Aetna CEO, Mark T. Bertolini began offering free meditation and yoga classes to Aetna employees and selling the same classes to the businesses that contract with Aetna for their health insurance. He even went so far as to increase Aetna’s minimum wage from $12 to $16 per hour. And for everyone else who is interested in becoming more mindful, you can enroll in a 8-week, 2.5 hour per session Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course at a plethora of locations across the country for a mere $400-$600. Alternatively, you can download one of the many mindfulness apps now available for smartphones.

Despite the recent popularity and enthusiasm for mindfulness in some circles, when I mention that I study and practice mindfulness and conduct mindfulness research, there are a lot of people who have no idea what I am talking about. Many of them dismiss it as some feel-good, tree-hugging jargon that I picked up on one of my yoga retreats.

So what is mindfulness anyway?

Mindfulness is the English translation of the Pali word sati, which means awareness. John Kabat-Zinn, who is credited with separating mindfulness from its Buddist based roots to make it more palatable to the general population, defines mindfulness as awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. In other words, mindfulness is noticing what is happening inside your body and out, on a moment to moment basis, and accepting whatever you find.

When I explain that to people, I still get blank stares.

In today’s fast paced, high demand, high stress society, many people are running on auto-pilot. They are going through the motions of daily responsibilities and obligations without paying much attention to what they are doing, how they are feeling or the people and environment around them. They are in constant “do” mode. People running on autopilot often engage in unhealthy automatic behaviors, simply because they are not paying attention. They do not notice that their bodies are telling them “slow down, you’re stressed” and thus, they do not have the wherewithal to disrupt the cycle of stress reactivity. They don’t recognize that they have chronic headaches, don’t get enough rest, constantly feel fatigued, overeat or have a drink too many to cope with stress. People who experience high rates of chronic stress have increased risk for chronic health conditions such as cardiovascular disease. In addition to the negative health implications of running on auto-pilot, people operating in this way often also have less satisfying interpersonal relationships and report being less productive at work. In sum, there is a price for not paying attention.

Mindfulness is stepping out of auto-pilot, pausing and asking yourself, “how do I feel, right now.” By simply asking this question — you are empowering yourself to make a more thoughtful response (versus reaction) when confronted with complex and challenging situations. When you’re running on auto-pilot you’re not only stuck in an unhealthy routine, you’re also missing out on a lot of daily joys and pleasures that are constantly occurring around you. You don’t savor the extra perfect cup of coffee that you had in the morning. You don’t fully experience the brightness and the warmth of the sun on a particularly nice day. You don’t appreciate that the hug that your child or partner gave you was a tiny bit more heartfelt. You don’t notice the smile of acknowledgment that the passerby on the street gave you. When you’re not mindful, you’re missing out.

Mindfulness is now being touted as the latest cure-all for everything — chronic illness, pain, depression, anxiety, overeating, smoking, unhealthy relationships, poor attention and concentration and lack of productivity. Accumulating research does indeed suggest that mindfulness has wide reaching mental and physical health benefits. However, it is important to be cautious and not over promise and under deliver.

In short, mindfulness is an invitation that you can give to yourself to explore yourself and your interactions with the environment in a new way. Mindfulness is an opportunity to slow down and be, rather than do. Mindfulness is letting go of judgment associated with anything that you discover on the journey. Mindfulness is broadening your purview and going through life with a fresh new curiosity. Mindfulness is expansive possibility.