Mindfulness training Photo courtesy of The TelegraphOpens in new window

Being mindful means being aware in the present moment. The awareness may be of one or more aspects of the inner world (body sensations, emotions, or thoughts) or of what is going on in the outer world. One experiences this awareness as if one is a detached observer, with acceptance, with compassion, and without judgment.

A purpose of practicing mindfulness is to realize that all the experiences and stimuli of which one is aware are transitory, and they do not define the person (i.e., “thoughts are just thoughts”).

If one is able to practice being an objective, impartial observer, one is less likely to get caught up in negative thoughts and emotions, which may play over and over in the mind like a tape recorder.

Ultimately, the purpose of mindfulness is a positive state of being, which includes feelings of peace and acceptance.

The concept of mindfulness dates back 2,500 years ago to ancient BuddhismOpens in new window. Various forms of meditationOpens in new window involve achieving a state of mindfulness. In the past few decades, Western scientists and mental health practitioners have adapted mindfulness philosophy and practices to improve the quality of life of people in the modern world.

In Thoughts & Feelings: Taking Control of Your Moods and Your LifeOpens in new window, McKay, Davis, and Fanning (2007) describe many examples of mindfulness techniques that are accessible for most people.

One simple example is “mindful breathing.” To begin, one lies down and closes one’s eyes. Breathing should be deep but natural. When breathing has become rhythmic, one should observe as much about one’s breating as possible.

  • Notice how cool the air is as it passes through the nose, then throat, then lungs.
  • Pay attention to the sensations of the diaphragm and belly.
  • Listen to any quiet noises that the air may make when passing through the nose, throat, or lungs.

If it is helpful, one may add a mantra such as saying “accept this moment” or “peace” during inhalations and exhalations. McKay, Davis, and Fanning recommend doing this technique twice a day. It is hoped that after a few days, one’s spontaneous thoughts and emotions may change in positive ways.

Positive psychologists, who study the best in human nature and who promote positive psychological functioning, have developed an interest in mindfulness.

They view mindfulness as a means to increase novelty in people’s lives. Being mindful can help people to view the world and themselves in new ways, which may mean breaking away from automatic, negative habits and becoming creative, people may begin to see things from outside the box.

For example, a mindless person would approach a problem the same way each time, in an unthinking, automatic fashion, even if the approach results in negative consequences. People’s interpersonal relations sometimes operate in this way.

  • A mindless person who is frustrated by the spending habits of her spouse may try to solve the problem with threats and continue to use threats for years, even though this never works.
  • A mindful person would step back from the problem and try something different such as rewarding her spouse for good (thrifty) behavior.

In addition to positive psychologists, other psychologists have seen the value and potential applications of mindfulness. Timothy Miller, in How to Want What You Have (1996)Opens in new window, argues the merits of an attitude that includes attention (his word for mindfulness), compassion, and gratitude. He says that it is difficult for humans to end the cycle of constanly wanting more but that learning how to appreciate what one has is worth the effort.

Cognitive and cognitive-behavioral psychotherapies apply principles of mindfulness; the mechanism for personal change in these therapies is modifying one’s ways of thinking through first becoming mindful of the ways of thinking.

More recently, applications of mindfulness have been put to empirical test. A frequently studied form of treatment based on mindfulness, mindfulness-based stress reductionOpens in new window, developed by Stanford psychologist Jon Kabat-Zinn, has been studied as an effective treatment for a variety of conditions, including anxiety, depression, and chronic pain (i.e., Grossman, Tiefenthaler-Gilmer, Raysz, & Kesper, 2007).

In a review of studies on mindfulness, Bishop (2002) concluded that mindfulness techniques and treatments are promising, but very few studies have been rigorous, utilizing randomized, controlled designs. Interest in mindfulness has now spanned centuries, cultures, and disciplines.

See also:
  1. Kabat-Zinn, J. (2005). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness meditation in everyday life. Concord, NH: Hyperion.
  2. McKay, M., Davis, M., & Fanning, P. (2007). Thoughts & Feelings: Taking control of your moods nad your life (3rd ed.). Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
  3. Miller, T.R. (1996). How to want what you have. New York: Harper Perennial.
  4. Bishops, S. R. (2002). What do we really know about mindfulness-based stress reduction? Psychosomatic Medicine, 64(1), 71 – 83.
  5. Grosman, P., Tiefenthaler-Gilmer, U., Raysz, A., & Kesper, U. (2007) Mindfulness training as an intervention for fibromyalgia: Evidence of postintervention and 3-year follow-up benefits in well-being. Psychotherapy and Psychosomatic, 76, 226 – 233.