What is Mindfulness and Why Does it Matter?
How do we cultivate and protect our peace and resilience in the midst of so much that seems stressful and threatening? We live in a period of high anxiety from rising prices and economic uncertainty, increased weather threats, divisive politics, mass shootings, and lingering waves of viral infections--including COVID-19 and its many variants. Growing awareness of the connection between our mental and physical health has given rise to new certifications for physicians in lifestyle or integrative medicine--a holistic approach to healthcare that encompasses the whole person. One of the pillars of lifestyle medicine is stress management, which includes meditation or mindfulness to help us release and renew.
Mindfulness is a state of present moment awareness, in which we do not judge whatever we experience or feel. It is the ability to fully focus our attention on what we are doing and where we are, without thinking about the future or worrying about the past. This self-care practice offers a way to a more calm, relaxed state of mind and a path to finding peace and joy even in difficult times. It is a way to manage stress, which can improve our health and wellness, along with our daily decision-making. Mindfulness is often associated with meditation, which is a popular way many people develop it.
We tend to live our lives in default mode, seeing everything through the lens of our past experiences, and missing new opportunities or ways of viewing the world. Most of our anxiety comes from agonizing over past hurts, disappointment, or trauma, or worrying about what will happen in the future. As a result, mindfulness, secular meditation, and yoga are now being offered in schools, the workforce, and hospitals to promote better mental and physical health. They help us avoid the habit of not living our lives fully each moment due to anxiety and insecurity. Because mindfulness slows down our typical reactions to what we encounter, we can see things more objectively as they are in the present, which improves our decision-making. It opens us up to personal growth, which generally increases our sense of happiness and previously unnoticed possibilities.
How Do We Create It?
Some of the basic principles of mindfulness involve simple yet profound changes we can make to live with more joy, gratitude, and peace, even in today’s world.
- Quiet time and a slower pace allow us to focus on the one thing in front of us. In that sense, any activity can be an exercise in mindfulness, including cooking, running, or washing your car. It is the exact opposite of multitasking. This kind of immersion in whatever we are doing in the moment can be a form of meditation. Traditionally, meditation is known as a mindfulness practice, which often takes place in a quiet space in your home. However, meditation can also take many forms, including spending time away from daily business and enjoying a walk by a river or sitting in a park. Simply acknowledging things we are thankful for, such as an easy breath, sunlight streaming through a window, family, health, or whatever we hold dear, can also shift our perspective. What we focus on, we amplify.
- Not judging/not reacting are ways to be an impartial witness to our own experience. This is sometimes described as cultivating a “beginner’s mind,” which allows us to see things differently and stimulates creativity. As an example, have you ever had something “bad” happen that ends up being a surprisingly “good” thing? Think of someone who misses a flight: While waiting for the next one, they meet someone who turns out to be their future life partner. Not immediately reacting or labeling everything that happens as good or bad helps us experience life as it is right now – not based entirely on past experience. When we suspend immediate judgment, we open ourselves to new possibilities and outcomes.
- Acceptance helps us see things as they are and not how we wish they were. No matter how unpleasant or dire a particular situation may be, accepting it for what it helps us act in an appropriate way and to make better decisions. Self-acceptance is a benefit of not judging ourselves. It is a form of compassion that allows us to feel more compassion for, and be less judgmental toward others. Practice self-acceptance by acknowledging the things you want to improve and celebrating the things that make you unique. Do not judge yourself based on the standards or opinions of others. Look at mistakes as opportunities to learn and grow.
- Learn to trust yourself and your feelings. This is sometimes described as trusting your inner voice. When we are in a quiet, meditative, or mindful state without our usual mind chatter, a kind of clarity becomes available and can enter into our consciousness, even after our mindfulness practice has ended. Sometimes the insights are surprising, and at other times, they occur gradually over time. This awareness of our inner truth and wisdom is always there, and by quieting the mind, we gain greater access to it. This is perhaps the most powerful benefit.
- Patience, non-striving, and release are also important attributes of mindfulness practice. They are a product of the wisdom that things can take time, and that we are not in control of the timing. Most of us have seen instances where forcing action may seem like a good idea, but can delay or spoil what requires patience and time to achieve. Mindfulness practice focuses our attention on the present and away from anxiety about our future, or worries from our past. It allows us to fully experience our existence in the moment, and feel gratitude for its gifts.
By regularly grounding ourselves in present-moment awareness, we experience a release from striving and worry, which are replaced by peace, calm, and joy.