Many people perhaps have a general idea of what Mindfulness is. Nailing down a proper definition is not overly complicated. But it is not entirely simple, either. Mindfulness can be defined both in terms of mainstream psychology and couched within the realm of spiritual practice.
However, this may be one of the few areas where science and religious and/or spiritual viewpoint blend together well with minimal conflict.
Mainstream psychology has long recognized Mindfulness as a legitimate aspect of human experience and area of study. The APA, the American Psychological Association, defines Mindfulness as:
“A moment-to-moment awareness of one’s experience without judgment.”
The APA definition goes on to call Mindfulness a “state” and not a “trait.” In other words, it’s a certain state of mind or state of being.
For example, psychologists would say depression can be either a state, a trait, or a combination of both. A person can be in a “state of depression,” or one of his/her personality “traits” can be that of a depressive personality. “He has depressive traits,” a psychologist might say.
It’s What You Do, Not What You Are
But those same psychologists would be hard-pressed to say: “She has a mindfulness trait.” Rather, it is more accurate to say: “She is practicing mindfulness.” Think of Mindfulness as a verb and not a noun. It is a way of approaching the world in a certain mode. It’s a way of operating one’s mind while doing something, be it work or play.
For a definition of Mindfulness outside of science, Thich Nhat Hanh, the great Buddhist monk, said:
“Mindfulness shows us what is happening in our bodies, our emotions, our minds, and in the world. Through Mindfulness, we avoid harming ourselves and others.”
Mindfulness is often confused with meditation. In fact, the term “mindful meditation” is often used, but the two are different things. It can get a bit confusing because many forms of meditation involve using Mindfulness in the process. The person meditating strives to be mindful of their breathing. They acknowledge their “busy mind” so that they can learn to let go of it or quiet it down.
The long-term goal of meditation is to get to a point where one has “no mind at all” in terms of the usual way we think about what the mind is.
Having “no mind at all” means you’ve stopped thinking about anything whatsoever.
A Surge in Popularity of Mindfulness
In the 1930s, ’40s or ’50s, very few people were talking about Mindfulness. It just wasn’t “a thing” during that time. It was in the 196os that the concept began to emerge. The 60s was a time of vast cultural shifts, from the “Summer of Love” and hippies to the advent of the New Age movement.
An interest in Eastern philosophies began to gain widespread interest as did an array of spiritual and esoteric practices. Many were a blend of ancient knowledge and modern scientific psychology.
A Reaction to Stressful Times
The real reason the concept of Mindfulness has become almost a household word is the unprecedented amount of stress we all live under today. Time magazine even dubbed it, “the Mindfulness Revolution.” Writers for Time say the need for Mindfulness is a logical reaction to a society that has become more stressful on every level, from home and family to the office. Even vacation time has become stressful for millions of people.
Yes, stress has always been with us. Many of us have lived through some tough times, from the Great Depression to World War II. But both of those periods in history were more like “slow burn stress” compared to the ultra-fast paced nature of our society today.
Traffic is more congested and hectic than ever. Cities are abuzz, and a modern office has dozens of ways to distract us with armies of electronic devices. Family life has become a highly scattered affair with each member operating on their own hectic schedules. Everyone is pursuing their own activities.
All of this led to the concept of multitasking. The term actually has its origins in computer technology. It was coined in 1965 as computers developed the ability to handle several different functions at once. Many corporate leaders assumed if computers could increase productivity through multitasking, why not people, too?
Many companies hired multitasking consultants to teach employees how to do it.
Today the concept of multitasking in people is seen mainly as a disastrous idea. Numerous studies show that multitasking erodes productivity, increases stress, reducing company profits, and a host of other ills.
The concept of Mindfulness is almost the direct opposite of multitasking – and studies show it is a far superior way to boost productivity and get things done. The kicker is, Mindfulness does this while lowering stress, increases profits, and leaving people generally happier. This is true in business life and life outside the workspace.
Benefits of Mindfulness
Psychologists have delineated seven benefits of Mindfulness.
- Improved memory
- Increased metacognitive awareness
- Reduced anxiety
- Fewer emotional swings/mood changes
- Better visual attention processing
- Reduces stress (not to be confused with anxiety)
- Better physical pain management
That’s a lot of significant benefits from something as simple as maintaining calm, moment-to-moment awareness, and staying focused on one task or experience at a time.
Mindfulness even helps people have better personal relationships. That’s because it improves the way we listen to others, how we communicate with others, and how we relate to others. Thousands of marriage counselors now leverage the concept of Mindfulness to save or improve marriages.
In a sense, Mindfulness is like a compromise between our daily hectic, busy lives, and sitting in meditation and experiencing a state of timeless bliss.
Very few of us can afford – or want to – give up our busy lives to join a monastery in the mountains to meditate in peace and seek bliss. At the same time, millions of people are eager to escape the tremendous stress and anxiety produced by modern life.
Learning Mindfulness is a way to have the best of both worlds.