Everywhere I turn, people are talking about their mindfulness meditation. They talk about it during exercise, at the grocery store, in everyday conversations. It’s in the news.
Even Anderson Cooper went on a mindfulness meditation weekend retreat. He gave up his cellphone, sat on a cushion, and lived to file a 60 Minutes report about it.
With all the talk, it’s easy to assume that mindfulness is just the latest shiny object in a long list of glittery, health-related baubles.
Surprisingly–or maybe luckily–that’s not true.
Mindfulness meditation has a long history of helping people. It has a proven track record of creating positive change.
It helps people be happier and more content, and to cope with pain and anxiety.
Mindfulness is one of the exceptional practices that can help many people with many different challenges to find ease in their suffering.
That’s a big promise for such a simple practice.
What is Mindfulness Meditation?
Jon Kabat-Zinn created a very popular program called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, which helps people use mindfulness practices to reduce stress and build resilience. He describes mindfulness as:
Mindfulness is living in the present moment. No stories. No distractions. It is soaking up the present moment fully.
In its most basic sense, mindfulness means living with awareness or consciousness–you experience your life with awareness. Used this way, mindfulness meditation is any one of many meditative practices which help you develop your awareness.
In a typical mindfulness meditation session, you choose an object of focus and you bring your awareness to that object. Two common objects to focus on are your breath or of the sounds around you, but there are many others as well.
Why Does Practicing Mindfulness Meditation Work?
Everyone recognizes the need to exercise your body. You need to build strength and train your muscles to respond to daily challenges.
Meditation works the same way. You need to exercise and train the mind to be fully aware in your daily life.
Ideally, your mind will kick into action with ideas and insights when you have intellectual or creative activities. And when those activities are done, your mind will sit back and rest.
But often, it doesn’t happen that way. It’s not uncommon for the mind to jabber on, long beyond the time when it’s helpful. In fact, often your mind is in control, creating your experience regardless of what is actually happening.
Mindfulness meditation helps you watch these patterns. You become aware of how your mind works, when it is and is not helpful. You start to see through its tricks.
This clear insight helps you calm down. Your body can reset. You have more resources for coping with life.
Why is Mindfulness Meditation so Challenging?
The idea of living in the present moment can seem simple. Elegant.
But too often, this simple idea is very hard.
Worrying about the future, regretting the past, interpreting the present… your mind has many ways to distract you from what is really going on.
Sometimes you can move from one idea to the next, layering your thoughts in front of the present moment like a filter in front of a camera lens. You no longer experience what is actually happening now. You experience what you are thinking about.
Living the world of your thoughts is a recipe for unhappiness. When your thoughts are in control, you are always reacting to ghosts.
Mindfulness is a way to peel back the layers we hold between ourselves and the world. It’s a way to see what really is.
What are the Benefits of Practice?
Mindfulness practices have their roots in spiritual practice and traditionally, their benefits were spiritual.
But for many, practicing has nothing to do with spirituality. Instead, mindfulness meditation is a tool for living a happier, more resilient, contented life.
More and more, science backs this up.
As scientists study the effects of meditation, they discover many benefits, from physical (lowering blood pressure, reducing stress hormones, or supporting your immune system), to emotional (coping with pain, reducing anxiety, or increasing contentment).
Hedy Kober , a neuroscientist at Yale University, has studied meditation. In her Ted Talk, she describes how mindfulness training can help you feel less stress, less pain, and change the way your brain works.
How to do Mindfulness Meditation
Sit in a comfortable position.
Take a moment to settle yourself. Feel the chair or floor beneath you. Let your muscles relax.
After a few moments, draw your attention to your breath.
Notice the sensations of the breath. The rise and fall of your chest. The expansion and contraction of your rib cage.
Keep your attention on your breath.
As you sit, you may notice that your thoughts begin to wander. If that happens, gently, bring them back to your breath.
No judgment. No worries. You’re not doing anything wrong. Just gently refocus yourself on your breath.
With practice, re-focusing becomes easier and easier.
Mindfulness meditation is not just a fad; it is part of a strategy for good, healthy living.
If you are committed to living fully, learning to discipline your mind is a key step. Mindfulness meditation helps you develop that discipline.