Of all the yoga terms making their ways into pop culture these days, mindfulness may be one of the most common. Some high-profile people have been vocal about integrating it into their daily routines, and big companies are offering mindfulness training to employees. There’s no doubt that all of this is a good thing, since our lives are becoming increasingly disjointed, and that constant frenzied feeling can make it hard to slow down enough to just sit with yourself. Practicing mindfulness can help us be more present in a huge number of ways, from actually tasting our food to being able to attend to our own internal processes to letting go of those “bad” thoughts when we can’t seem to get them out of our heads.
Jon Kabat Zinn, who developed the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program at University of Massachusetts, has famously described mindfulness as paying attention to the present moment, on purpose, and in a nonjudgmental way. This sounds simple, but it’s actually quite difficult for many people. It’s so easy to be so “in your head” that you forget to pay attention to what you’re your doing. The classic example is sitting down for a hot cup of tea: Because your brain is going to a million different places, the next thing you know, the tea is gone and you can’t remember having drunk it. One thing that mindfulness does is teach us to purposefully pay attention to what we’re doing so that we actually experience life in the present.
Traci Childress, who teaches at the Children’s Community School in Philadelphia, PA, describes mindfulness as helping us “train our minds to be more present – and more able to return to this moment. We are inundated with distractions and opportunities every day – it is so easy to multitask. Mindfulness practice helps us to return to the moment when we find ourselves spinning off.” And because we think of the constantly buzzing part of ourselves as a productive one (even though in many ways, it’s the opposite), the habit can be hard to break.
The other important part of mindfulness is that it allows us to see thoughts as just thoughts, rather than as defining aspects of who we are. Sometimes we attach so much meaning to our thoughts that it’s difficult to see them as just random events in our heads – but the reality is that they can leave just as quickly, provided that we approach them with curiosity and non-judgment, and actually allow them to.
And, of course, part of the beauty of mindfulness training is that it’s been shown in scientific research to quiet the stress areas of the brain, and to deactivate the brain networks responsible for mind-wandering. Therapeutically, it’s used in lots of areas. “Mindfulness is invaluable on all fronts,” says Childress, “as one sees in the research on the benefits of mindfulness to help children focus in school, to support veterans with PTSD, even to support trauma survivors. It is an accessible, portable practice that has real effects on the capacity of the brain to heal and the nervous system to calm down.”
Mindfulness is also extremely helpful as a tool for people in therapy, and is often used alongside cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) in a combination called mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT). This is because mindfulness asks people to introspect into their own behavior and thought patterns with curiosity, rather than with anxiety or judgment. Many people are afraid to “go there” when it comes to looking into ourselves, since we’re often afraid of what we’ll find when we do. But mindfulness teaches us to evaluate and acknowledge these thought patterns – which are often laid down early in childhood – in a different, more “objective” way, which makes learning newer and more productive patterns (the goal of CBT) much easier and more effective.
“In a culture that spends millions of dollars on drugs to do this,” adds Childress, “I think mindfulness has the real potential to transform our relationship to health, and healing and to empower us with tools that are readily accessible.”
And there’s value not only in learning mindfulness for ourselves, but also teaching it to the next generation, so that our kids grow up with the tools to deal with the stresses of daily life, and be more patient with their peers. “The practices lay real groundwork for the development of empathy and compassion,” says Childress. “When children learn to notice their own reactions, responses, and to breathe through them, they are more able to notice the reactions of those around them, and to become engaged and compassionate citizens, who are less reactive and more thoughtful in response to each moment.”
Childress teaches a meditation in which she encourages kids to imagine themselves as grounded rocks, around which water flows. “’The water is like your thoughts.’ I say, ‘They come, and they go, but you are still there, softly settled into the sand. Just be there. Feel the support of the ground, the motion of the water. Just breathe.’ This advice is a great way to start out, for children or adults. Another way is to view your thoughts as no more substantial than clouds passing by. You can observe them as they go by, acknowledge them, and let them go. Just think, “Hmm. That was interesting. A thought popped into my head there. It’s worth paying attention to and acknowledging – but it doesn’t define me.” You can inquisite into how it makes you feel, but know that it’s not who you are. And then, with some practice, you’ll see that it will just pass.
Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.