Natalie L Trent, PhD
June 4, 2018
There is little that is of greater importance than being present. So let’s take a few seconds to be present now. Notice the position of your body and the nature of your breath. Take a few conscious breaths in and out and make any adjustments that make you feel more at ease.
The act of being aware of the present moment in an open and nonjudgmental way is often called mindfulness. The concept of mindfulness has been a part of humanity for thousands of years, with the first known origins in Buddhism and Hinduism. Being present is our natural state, so while the labels for mindfulness can be dated, mindfulness itself is timeless.
The Problem of Mindlessness
The opposite of mindfulness is mindlessness, which is when we are not pay attention to what we are doing in the present. Mindlessness towards certain experiences can be very useful, such as when performing basic functions that need to flow without much attention, like typing on a keyboard as I am right now. We can’t pay attention to everything at all times of course. But it is when mindlessness takes over our minds most of the time that it becomes detrimental to our wellbeing.
Mindlessness is partnered with mind wandering, the act of thinking about anything and everything that does not have to do with the current moment. Scientific research shows that although people may think mind wandering or ruminating helps solve problems, it only makes us unhappy. Sometimes we don’t even remember the drive to work, or a conversation with someone, because we were thinking about the past or anticipating the future. But life is now, and if we are not present our life slips away right under our nose! Some of our memories are stronger than others, and we have nostalgia for certain periods of time in our lives. This is because we were mindful during those moments. So if we want to preserve memories better, we should be more mindful.
We can be snapped into mindfulness by an unusual or shocking experience, whether good or bad, such as childbirth, or a car accident. When we are mindful our experience is much richer. Eyes sparkle, strangers smile, food tastes better, and the flowers smell sweeter. We all want to feel good. But we all don’t know the best way to cultivate wellness for various reasons, whether our individual upbringing or culture. We may choose hedonistic, addictive behaviors instead of becoming more present. Mindlessness and addiction go hand-in-hand. Instead of being present and fully engaged in our experience, we revert to going shopping when we don’t need to or grab an extra plate of junk food, or get drunk and collapse into unconsciousness. Understandably then, mindfulness practice has been shown to decrease or even abolish addiction to drugs, alcohol, gambling, gaming, and others,,4],.
So why are we so mindless? Well, our cultural systems are not inherently designed to promote mindfulness, but quite the opposite. Many of us learn to be more mindless through our imposed daily order and tasks, and our authority figures growing up often model mindlessness because they are a part of this system. The education system can cause overlearning or memorization, closing the mind and reducing critical thinking and creativity.
Electronic devices promote mindlessness through continually pulling our attention away from our selves, our immediate surroundings, and those around us with whom we would otherwise interact. Of course there are counter arguments where mindfulness can be fostered through these devices, such as with mindfulness apps, but by and large, these devices increase mindlessness.
Bombarded with information and advertisements which certainly capture our focus into either some event outside of our experience, or some object we need to add to our experience in the future. These cultural behavioral programming tools do not promote mindfulness.
The Mindful Explosion
There has been an explosion of mindfulness research over the past couple of decades. The research is growing so rapidly that it is practically impossible to keep up. When I was doing my doctorate at Queen’s University, fellow colleagues laughed at the idea of me studying mindfulness, thinking it was “fringe.” They must feel pretty silly now.
What happens when we become mindful? Thankfully, many scientists including myself have been studying mindfulness on many aspects of human functioning. For example, a study I conducted while I was a Research Fellow at Harvard University revealed that people who are more mindful are also more empathic. So, the less mindful we are the more likely we are to and behave toward others in less empathic ways. Of course this can be disastrous depending on the level of maltreatment.
Practicing mindfulness improves human health and wellbeing in numerous ways ,. So why are we resistant to being mindful? Our awareness is where all of our blissful experience is, but it’s also where we uncover the gunk we have to remove from our lives. And some of us are just not ready to go there yet. For those of us who are ready to be more of our true selves and fully engaged in life, there are many techniques for increasing mindfulness, which I will explain a bit below.
How do We Cultivate Mindfulness?
There are numerous of ways to be more mindful because it is a state of being present, which is accessible to us at all times.
Mindfulness in the Moment
The simplest way to be mindful is to use an anchor of some kind throughout your day. This is usually the breath, but can be other things as well, such as a word you repeat, or a special charm, or any number of things. What matters is finding what works for you. For me, I like to use my breath and body as an anchor to the present. Throughout the day I will check in with my breathing, particularly if something challenging or emotional has come up. Once I check in and breathe, I am back in control of my attention and therefore, my experience.
These anchors act as reminders and allow us to dive back into mindfulness regardless of what we are doing. This is an important practice because although there are techniques to develop mindfulness, if you do not use it throughout your day you won’t get the maximum benefit. The more present we are throughout our day, the more alive we are.
There are mindfulness practices that have been studied scientifically as systematic programs. An ancient mindfulness practice that has been scientifically studied recently is yoga. Yoga postures are mindfulness in motion and are what yoga is most known for in the western hemisphere, but yoga also consists of breathing techniques, meditations, and philosophies, all of which increase mindfulness.
Many energy medicine practices such as Reiki and Qigong also cultivate mindfulness because they work with subtle energy, which fluctuates from moment to moment. Ellen Langer, the first scientist to define and study mindfulness, in the late 70s, has a practice of simply noticing novelty to cultivate mindfulness, sometimes known as sociocognitive mindfulness. The most studied and well-established mindfulness program is mindfulness-based stress-reduction (MBSR), developed by Jon Kabat Zinn in the early 1980s. There are many techniques for being mindful and the profound benefits of cultivating mindfulness have been shown across thousands of scientific studies over the last few decades.
Mindfulness is also contagious, meaning when one person is mindful they can pass it on to others as well. More mindful psychotherapists will have patients who become more mindful, and mindful physicians have patients that do better in health outcomes. The reasons to practice mindfulness are truly endless, as they extend to the limits of our human potential.
So, let’s all be a little more mindful and spread the love to others!
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