The Meaning Of Mindfulness

285368472_91b377a1b7_zMindfulness is one of those fashionable terms that you see getting used just about everywhere, but what exactly does it mean?

In his book, The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being, Daniel J. Siegel, Director of the Mindsight Institute, Co-Director of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center and the author of several books, writes:

Mindfulness in its most general sense is about waking up from a life on automatic, and being sensitive to novelty in our everyday experiences.  With mindful awareness the flow of energy and information that is our mind enters our conscious attention and we can both appreciate its contents and come to regulate  its flow in a new way.  Mindful awareness, as we will see, actually involves more than just simply being aware: It involves being aware of aspects of the mind itself.  Instead of being on automatic and mindless, mindfulness helps us awaken, and by reflecting on the mind we are enabled to make choices and thus change becomes possible.

Being mindful is not only being aware, it is being aware of awareness. It is approaching the present experience with a reflective awareness including the qualities of curiosity, openness, acceptance, and love.  Siegel has coined the acronym COAL to remember these.

In the book, Siegel quotes Jon Kabat Zinn as defining mindfulness as: “The awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.”

Another definition he offers which comes from  The Innerkids Program, designed to teach young children basic mindfulness skills, is: “Being aware of what is happening as it is happening.”

In mindfulness studies, there are five basic factors that tend to comprise mindfulness:

  • Nonreactivity to inner experience (e.g., perceiving feelings and emotions without having to react to them);
  • observing/noticing/attending to sensations, perceptions, thoughts, feelings (e.g., remaining present with sensations and feelings even when they are unpleasant or painful);
  • acting with awareness/not on automatic pilot, concentration/nondistraction (e.g., breaking or spilling things because of carelessness, not paying attention, or thinking of something else);
  • describing/labeling with words (e.g., easily putting beliefs, opinions, and expectations into words);
  • nonjudgmental of experience (e.g., criticizing oneself for having irrational or appropriate emotions).

Almost every culture and religion have practices that encourage and help people to develop awareness of the present moment or mindfulness including meditation, prayer, yoga, tai chi and qui quong.  These practices share the common intent to consciously focus awareness in a very specific way.  Siegel writes:  “Direct experience in the present moment has been described as a fundamental part of Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Islamic, Jewish and Taoist teaching.”  Mindfulness is not associated with any one religious orientation nor does it conflict with any.

Research has shown mindfulness to significantly improve a wide range of conditions from borderline personality disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, eating disorders, post traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety disorders.  It has shown to be helpful in the prevention of relapse with chronic depression and substance abuse.  I know that it has sure changed my life dramatically for the better as it helped me recover from depression and a serious brain injury resulting from a suicide attempt.  It can your change your life for the better too!

image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/naukhel/