What is mindfulness?
In order to recognize the importance of mindfulness, we need to understand the functioning of our mind. Unfortunately, our mind, when left untrained, can easily shift to a “default”, mindless mode where only previously learned information are used and automatic reactions are repeated with little awareness or attention to novel information derived from the present context. It has been shown that in such a mode, we experience more emotional chaos, don’t learn effectively nor think clearly, have narrow perspectives, commit rapidly to rigid ideas, and don’t consider alternatives. Consequently, we follow others without questioning their behaviors, make poor judgments and decisions, and have little insight about the results of our behaviors on ourselves and on others.
In opposition to this “mindlessness”, mindfulness is characterized by an open, curious, flexible, and tuned in to the present attitude. Mindfulness can be practiced though meditation, an Eastern (Buddhist) traditional contemplative practice or through different exercises addressing attention, awareness, presence in the moment, and mental flexibility. Whatever practice is used to cultivate mindfulness, it should be viewed as an ongoing process aiming at countering our default, mindless, and automatic mode of functioning. In addition, many people confuse mindfulness with relaxation. Relaxation is only a stage during meditation and does not capture the entire essence or function of mindfulness or meditation.
What are the benefits of mindfulness?
Cumulative research in the last forty years has strongly shown that mindfulness has numerous undeniable positive effects on our mind and body. For example, mindfulness was found in multiple studies to change both the functioning of our brain and its structure specifically when cultivated and practiced during a long period of time. Mindfulness can be viewed like a savings account where the more you save, the more resilient you are during difficult and challenging times. In line with that, it was shown across several studies that mindfulness:
- Increases our awareness, creativity and mental flexibility allowing us to learn and integrate new information and to view past experiences with a different perspective;
- Helps us to increase our emotional stability, well-being, and quality of life by augmenting acceptance of our internal states (including our thoughts, emotions, and unpleasant physical sensations) and external situations (including life stages and challenges);
- Reduces stress and psychological distress in both physical/medical conditions (including chronic pain, headache, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, cancer, heart disease, tinnitus, multiple sclerosis, HIV, epilepsy, and rheumatoid arthritis) and psychological difficulties (including, distress, depression and other mood problems, stress, anxiety, alcohol/substance use, attention deficit hyperactivity, sexual problems, and psychosis/schizophrenia);
- Increases life satisfaction and happiness, namely marital satisfaction and parental abilities by decreasing our emotional and behavioral reactivity and negative judgments and deepening our understanding, empathy, kindness, and compassion towards others;
- Creates a deep and insightful contact with our true self and values, leading to profound changes and sincere life commitments;
- Leads to a state of body-mind and thought-emotion balance characterized by internal calmness, satisfaction, acceptance, self-compassion, and equanimity;
- Provides us with a safe place where difficult and even traumatic experiences (e.g., physical/sexual abuse) can be re-interpreted and transcended without reactivity or avoidance;
- Reverses aging effects (including effects on memory), and even increases longevity.
In summary, mindfulness has prevailing implications on physical/mental health including longevity, interpersonal and intimate relationships, social behavior, learning, and self-development. No doubt, it carries powerful and promising effects on both individuals and societies.
Who could benefit from mindfulness?
According to several scientific studies, mindfulness is helpful for people of all ages. In fact, mindfulness based treatments were tested in adults, adolescents, children, spouses, families, and the elderly, and everyone benefited from learning and practicing mindfulness. You do not need to suffer from a physical illness or mental problem to learn and benefit from mindfulness; you neither need to have specific background or previous knowledge or experience. Mindfulness can be helpful for a child struggling at school, an athlete seeking to increase his endurance or performance, a married man looking to renew his relationship with his wife and children, a business woman wanting to excel at her trade, and a scientist pursuing academic excellence. Briefly, mindfulness is for everyone!
How should I start learning mindfulness?
The best way to learn mindfulness and integrate it in your daily life is to be coached by a mindfulness teacher (with real and valid mindfulness credentials) or by a mental health professional (e.g., psychologist) with mindfulness appropriate knowledge and experience. It has been shown that patients of mindful therapists have better outcomes than non-mindful ones even if both have similar clinical training and credentials. One way that mindfulness influences the therapy process is by increasing the presence of the therapist in the moment with the patient while countering negative judgment and rigid responses. A mindful therapeutic process:
- Makes the client feel fully accepted despite failures and difficulties, therefore increasing confidence in the therapist and commitment in the therapeutic process;
- Increases the client’s self-compassion and flexibility;
- Facilitates change.
Briefly, when going to therapy, the selection of a mindful therapist can contribute to improving outcomes.
Finally, it is noteworthy that mindfulness integrates well with other similar therapeutic approaches, in particular with cognitive and behavioral approaches (CBT) and motivational interviewing (MI). In fact, recent studies suggest that a combination of mindfulness intervention and motivational interviewing might increase the success of behavioral interventions aiming at promoting self- management of (e.g., smoking/drug cessation, exercising, dieting…).
Why not give mindfulness a try?