Mindfulness offers the best of both worlds: the ancient wisdom of Buddhism and meditation, and the developed wonders of contemporary science. The result is a near-miraculous method with countless applications for improving our mental well-being.
Perhaps you’ve heard of mindfulness, a method or process whose goal is to achieve the mental discipline necessary to bring our attention to the experiences of the present moment. This is achieved through meditation and training in several other techniques, and at its best, its constitutes a complete lifestyle on its own. Based mainly on Buddhism, mindfulness has grown in popularity in the recent years. The best part? It’s actually got the science to back it up.
What it is
Mindfulness involves the ability to maintain moment-by-moment awareness of our experiences and surroundings. That means being presently and deeply aware of our thoughts, sensations, feelings, and environment without self-judgement. There’s no right or wrong state of which you’re aware—or, at least, you shouldn’t see the world in those terms while practicing mindfulness. Furthermore, being in the present means not rehashing the past nor envisioning the future—you’re just supposed to acknowledge what is actually here, without all the worries or suffering associated with our intractable abilities of memory or imagination.
From Buddhist roots
At its core, mindfulness comes from a key element in the Buddhist tradition called sati, which refers to a spiritual or psychological faculty of profound awareness—the first of seven factors of enlightenment in Buddhist philosophy to reach awakening. In order to develop this faculty, mindfulness incorporates Vipassanā (insight) meditation, Zen meditation, and other Tibetan meditation techniques. But you don’t need to hold all the background spiritual beliefs typically associated with these philosophies in order to get all the benefits from mindfulness.
A secular practice of mindfulness has been evolving for a while now, mostly in America. Ever since the 1970s, psychiatry and clinical psychology have developed several therapeutic applications derived from mindfulness to help patients to reduce anxiety, suffering, and other conditions.
With modern science
Jon Kabat-Zinn, an American professor of medicine, is one of the figures who, together with Herbert Benson and Richard Davidson, have played a pivotal role in bringing mindfulness towards science and mainstream western society. Kabat-Zinn developed the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program (MBSR), launched in 1979, after which thousands of studies have verified and confirmed the benefits of mindfulness in the treatment of issues raging from depression and anxiety to drug addiction.
Since then, the uses and applications of mindfulness have expanded greatly, reliably providing such outcomes as increased athletic performance, healthy aging, improved cognition in children with special needs, and weight management. It’s also likely that mindfulness helps as a prevention tool to halt the development of mental illness. So, all in all, pretty great.
Science keeps delving into and exploring the world of mindfulness, not only in terms of ongoing research—which is essential—, but also in working out how to best apply it to an ever-expanding list of situations. There’s been plenty of times when science has disproven or outright refuted spiritual techniques that promise wonderful insights. This is not one of those times—on this occasion, everything seem to support this wise and ancient method.
Yes, mindfulness is all about living in the present. And that helps. It’s a practice we’ve neglected in a world that naively praises a forward-looking mentality and rewards people who manage to be one step ahead of the competition. Every once in a while, however, we should take a moment, breathe, and just take it all in. What’s the purpose of accomplishing anything if we’re not even aware of what we’ve actually accomplished?
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