Mindfulness is a meditation-based practice that increases your sense of awareness of the present moment through deliberate, non-judgmental attention.
As mindfulness has increasingly entered the popular imagination, its meaning has also shifted. Now, it can also describe a social movement and a lifestyle trend that involves being in a non-meditative state and setting aside mental distractions to focus on the here and now. This could mean tuning into your own emotions, sensations and thoughts, or whatever that is happening around you.
Who invented mindfulness?
Mindfulness has its roots in Buddhist thought and theory and is derived from the Buddhist concept of sati, which can be translated approximately as "memory of the present".
In the West, a more secular practice of mindfulness was first popularised by the work of cognitive scientist Jon Kabat-Zinn, who launched his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programme at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979. The eight-week course has since become a clinical and scientific standard for researchers studying the effects of meditation and has gone on to shape our contemporary understanding of mindfulness.
Today, whether mindfulness is practised through yoga meditation or apps like Headspace, it has come to embody a way of living as much as a frame of mind that helps you tune into the present.
Are mindfulness and meditation the same thing?
While mindfulness originated from Buddhist meditation, and though they embody similarities, they are not the same.
The most apparent difference is that meditation is a practice, and through this practice, you can cultivate the quality of mindfulness. To achieve this, there are many types of meditation. One good example is the body scan meditation where you focus attention on different parts of your body.
On the other hand, mindfulness does not always have to involve meditation. Meditation is only one aspect of mindfulness. Kabat-Zinn's MBSR programme, for example, incorporates not only rigorous meditation techniques but also emotional awareness and cognitive behavioural therapy effective in treating common mental disorders such as anxiety and depression.
Does mindfulness help with mood disorders?
Recent studies have shown benefits for mindfulness, even when practised for just a few weeks, against a variety of conditions. Here are some of these health benefits:
- Mindfulness can help in easing anxiety, depression and pain. One study found that engaging in a mindfulness-based stress reduction programme helped quell anxiety symptoms in people with generalised anxiety disorder, a condition marked by uncontrollable worrying, nervousness and poor sleep.
- Mindfulness can improve the way you cope with stress. A study found that mindfulness training can reduce self-perceived stress, although it has no direct effect on hormone cortisol levels or, in other words, your actual stress levels.
- Mindfulness can literally change your brain. Research has shown how long-term meditators have an increased density of grey matter in the insula and sensory regions, the auditory and sensory cortex, along with the frontal cortex, which is associated with working memory and decision-making.
How can you practise mindfulness?
Mindfulness can be a simple practice that's easily accessible to everyone. While it can be cultivated through formal meditation, there are also many other ways through which you can focus on the present moment. Here are a few principles of mindfulness that Kabat-Zinn and others have identified:
- Gently draw your attention to your breathing, especially when you're facing stressful, negative or intense emotions. Be present for each inhalation and exhalation.
- Tune in to what you're sensing at the moment, and pay close attention to the sights, sounds and smells that you don't really notice as you go about your day – distant bird calls outside your window, for example, or the way the hard floor feels beneath your feet.
- When faced with negative thoughts and emotions, simply acknowledge them without ascribing judgement. Recognise that because they are fleeting you don’t have to let them define you.
- Need a moment? Set aside small, manageable pockets of time throughout the day to practise mindfulness and reset your focus.
To further develop these skills, you can practise exercises in mindfulness. For a start, consider listening to basic guided meditations from YouTube or apps such as Headspace. You can begin with a one-minute meditation and work your way towards 10- or 15-minute sessions. Here are a few common exercises:
- Body scan, which systematically focuses on each part of your body, from head to toe
- The raisin exercise, in which you slowly tune into each of your senses to observe a simple raisin in great detail, from the way it feels in your hand to the way it smells
- Loving-kindness meditation, which directs feelings of compassion and equanimity towards people, branching out from yourself to all beings everywhere
How can you introduce mindfulness at work?
No matter what your job is, being at the workplace can be a source of significant stress. Mindfulness can help. Practising these simple tips throughout your work day can reduce the effects of workplace stress on your mind and body.
- Start your workday right by taking 10 minutes at your desk or in your car for a short mindfulness exercise before you dive into activity. Simply notice your breath and count silently during each exhalation.
- To help you stay present and make conscious choices, dedicate a specific period of time to clear your email inbox rather than responding to them throughout the day as they pop up.
- Avoid multitasking. Aim to finish one task before starting the next one, and recognise internal and external distractions as they arise before letting them go.
- If you have to wait for a few moments – at the office lift or when you’re printing something – take an intentional pause and check in with your body and breath instead of scrolling through your phone or inbox.
While mindfulness has been proven to help with stress, mental disorders i.e. anxiety and depression with moderate effect, it’s important to be aware that there is no evidence to suggest that practising mindfulness is more effective than other similar treatments. Instead of practising mindfulness as a one-size-fits-all solution, consider incorporating it into your daily life as one aspect of a holistic approach to your mental health.
If you think you may be experiencing intense mental distress or stress levels beyond your control, you should still consider seeking the help of a medical professional to manage your mental health.
Article reviewed by Dr Irene Alban, medical advisor at IHH Healthcare Singapore
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