People often confuse the concept of mindfulness with the idea that one should “stop and smell the roses.” However, if you found yourself with your nose stuck deep into a flower in a field where an angry bull was bearing down on you, this would be the exact opposite of being mindful. Put simply, mindfulness is a state of mind where you are fully conscious and engaged in the present moment and with the demands of the present moment.
The concept of mindfulness comes to us through the Buddhist religion. The word “mindfulness” is one translation of the Pali word sati (Sanskrit smrti). Other translations of this word include “awareness” and “memory.” Mindfulness is one’s capacity to avoid distraction from the present moment, but in Buddhism it also means to avoid forgetting what one already knows and to remember to do what one has an intention to do.
If mindfulness means avoiding distraction, what is it that distracts us from the present? People are constantly besieged with needs. Our basic needs such as food and shelter, and our more complicated needs for love, respect, happiness, and so on all compel us to consider our past and future in terms of what to avoid and what to seek after. Consequently, the tempting answer is to blame all the things going on in our world as the source of distraction. A Buddhist would disagree. Instead of everything that goes on “out there” being the source of distraction, Buddhists blame what they call the “monkey mind.” The monkey mind refers to our own mental capacity to engage internally in constant chatter. Sometimes internal mental chatter can be helpful for working out problems, for analysis, and even for play. However constant mental chatter can also distract us from the things that are most important. And often, it can actually mislead us into misunderstanding a given situation. Buddhism teaches techniques in meditation to cultivate mindfulness and quiet the monkey mind.
Psychological Concept of Mindfulness
Although mindfulness originated as a Buddhist concept, psychologists from the 1970s to the present have studied the effects of Buddhist mindfulness meditation techniques and found that these are effective in reducing anxiety and reducing relapse rates in both depression and drug addiction. Recent studies have found that incorporating mindfulness into your life can increase positive emotions, improve the immune system, and reduce stress.
Despite the nearly universal agreement on the benefits of mindfulness, psychologists disagree on an exact definition of mindfulness or an exact method for developing mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn , one of the first psychologists to study mindfulness as a secular concept, defines mindfulness as “paying attention, in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” According to a later study, mindfulness studies in psychology tend to require two components for mindfulness:
- A quality of high attentiveness and concentration
- An attitude of curiosity and openness.
How to practice mindfulness?
You can take a training course (check BBC for online Mindfulness course) that involves incorporating certain activities into a daily practice to become more mindful. For a start, you can do the following things at least once a day:
- Mindfulness meditation for 10 to 20 minutes
- List five things for which you are grateful in your gratitude journal
- Focus on something for which you are ungrateful and note all of the aspects of it for which you are grateful.
While none of these activities are particularly difficult or time consuming, remembering to take time out of your busy day for them can be difficult. In order to do anything with regularity, we must make the activity into a habit. Here are some pointers on how to form habitual behavior:
- Use a reminder. For example, after you brush your teeth at night, use this as a cue to signal that it’s time to meditate, or use the beginning of your workday before (or after) you clock in to act as a cue to list five things you’re grateful for in a gratitude journal.
- Have a routine. Try to write in your gratitude journal or meditate at the same time every day.
- Reward yourself. Although developing mindfulness or a cumulative sense of gratitude are their own rewards, the act of setting up a specific reward helps to divide a large task into many small tasks. For example, for after a week of successively meditating, pick a small reward for yourself.
- Doing something consistently becomes automatic over time, but that time can vary between 18 and 254 days to do so. The average amount of time to make a habit automatic is around two months.
- If you miss a day, don’t beat yourself up. Take note however why you missed it as well as any strategies to counteract whatever caused you to miss it. Be aware that a change in routine can disrupt habitual behavior and may require the development of a new reminder and routine.