What is Mindfulness and How Does It Work

Mindfulness is a practice that has gained popularity in mainstream America within the last decade. Mindfulness by definition means a cognizance and awareness of something, but within psychology, it means a specific focus on one’s own state of being in the present moment. This includes thoughts, feelings, reactions and bodily sensations.

One of the most important aspects of mindfulness is that it is a categorization of these factors without the presence of judgment or evaluation. By not categorizing a certain emotion or feeling as “right” or “wrong,” it allows for an individual to gain a deeper understanding of their state of being, mind, and body without an assessment of the validity of those sensations.
By removing a self-assessment of rightness, mindfulness allows human beings to take notice of the unique processes that govern their mind and body and take actionable measures to improve their mental state and overall happiness.

How Mindfulness Works

Traditional mindfulness is practiced through meditation; however, as modern adaptations have formed so have other methods of cultivating a mindful state of being. The process of cultivating mindfulness can be difficult for beginners to grasp at first, but after practice, it becomes a much more natural, fluid process. There are four main tenants to focus on when entering a mindful state of being, each aspect being equally important.

  1. Become aware of the thoughts and emotions defining your being. Pay close attention to reoccurring patterns of thought or spikes in emotional response. Do not fall into the trap of reprimanding yourself for feeling something “wrong” or “pointless”. Approach this evaluation with the understanding that all thoughts and emotions, good and bad, are a part of you. Emotions and thoughts are mercurial and fleeting, so do not let the negative thoughts define you, just try to notice and understand them.
  2. Take notice of the environment around you and try to focus on the minutia of your environment that usually would escape your thoughts. Pay attention to the sights, sounds, and smells around you and make them a conscious thought in your evaluation of yourself.
  3. Tune into your breathing and try to implement a calm, repetitive cadence that will calm your pulse and your mind to a state of relaxation. If you are feeling an intense emotion, like anger or anxiety, be especially conscious of your breathing patterns and attempt to regulate your breathing as much as possible.
  4. Pay attention to the physical sensations your body experiences. These sensations can be as simple as the whip of a brisk breeze on your skin or the feeling of warm water on your skin as you wash your hands. Notice how your body responds to these stimuli and become aware of the unique code of sensational responses that your body possesses.

By becoming aware of these four factors, an individual can begin to cultivate a mindful state of being that is rigorously engaged in the present moment.

The Benefits of Mindfulness

Mindfulness has become popular recently in part due to the numerous benefits it can provide. One of the main benefits many people cite is the reduction of negative feelings and stress. This lessening of tension and anxiety results in a brain that is rewiring itself to experience positive emotions and reactions in the place of negative feelings. This factor has tremendous implications for all individuals, but particularly those that suffer from substance abuse addictions.

Mindfulness has become a common practice within the therapy and rehabilitation community because of its ability to help create healthy, happy responses where previously negative, self-destructive responses arose. This can mean that someone who would normally go seek alcohol when feeling sad can now be mindful of that sadness and re-route it into something more positive and healthy.

Just as this can be extremely important for those suffering from addictive responses, it can be helpful for new parents coping with the stresses of raising a child, students that struggle with behavior problems and aggression within the classroom and it can even help medical professionals connect with their patients on a deeper level.

In addition to these examples, there are innumerable other individual situations that can be positively affected by practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness can also enhance personal relationships, both romantic and platonic, by cultivating a mindset that has regulated emotions and increased empathy. Some studies have shown that practicing mindfulness increases activity in the networks of the brain that regulate emotional responses, making it an ideal practice for any individual seeking a more balanced state of mind.

How to Practice Mindfulness on a Daily Basis

Mindfulness can and should be practiced every day in order to be most effective. There are many methods for practicing mindfulness, with varying levels of success based on the individual. Some of the most popular methods of practicing mindfulness are:

  • Traditional meditation: This is the most common method for practicing mindfulness and is characterized by a set time of complete quiet and solitude in which the mind is emptied of thought and the surroundings and body are felt. Traditional meditation fosters a state of calm that can be carried on long after the set time has elapsed.
  • The Body Scan: In this exercise, focus on the most distal part of your body first, the toes, and work your way up the entire body focusing on each sensation as you go. Do not try to change or control the feelings you encounter during the scan, just accept them as they are and continue on. End the body scan with your head, and if time permits, begin again.
  • Detailed Focus: Pick an item or person in your life and begin conducting a very detailed analysis of this item or person with all of your senses. This exercise will force you to engage in the details of the specific moment and be present.
  • Kindness Meditation: In this exercise, focus on yourself first and extend compassion and kindness to yourself. From there, do the same to the closest person to you. Continue this process until you are extending compassion to everything within reach.
  • Movement Meditation: Many individuals have an activity they feel calms them down, whether it is swimming, walking, running, or any other activity. Choose an activity you enjoy and then engage in each physical sensation that arises while practicing this activity. If swimming, notice the ripple of the water around you, the pull of your shoulder muscles as you drag your arm in the water, and the tension in your ankles as you kick. This exercise will allow you to engage in the details of the present and to appreciate all of the efforts that go into the movement.

Mindfulness is a state of being that can tremendously alter the way an individual experiences the world and interacts with others. This has made practicing mindfulness a beneficial therapy especially within the rehabilitation community.