What is mindfulness?
The term mindfulness refers to the experience of present awareness and the practices that can bring us into presence.
Mindfulness is a natural state. It is the experience of alert, focused awareness of the present moment. When we are fully present, we are not engaging very much with our thinking, though thoughts continue to surface. Thoughts have less traction in the experience of non-judgmental awareness, and we are available to whatever is happening internally and externally. In this internal spaciousness, nothing need be pushed away or refused. All sensations--including pain, anxiety, fear and anger--are welcome to come and go. The mind remains responsive and flexible throughout. We may or may not feel more relaxed as a result.
Internal stability and spaciousness can be available to us at any time. For many people, daily use of focusing strategies and skills results in unexpected changes. They report that they are less irritated by daily frustrations, less distressed by their symptoms, and that difficult relationships seem less fraught. People have expressed feeling new clarity, energy and self-confidence, even when their external challenges remained. These impacts seem to flow naturally from the daily practice of presence.
Mindfulness is generally not what we think it is.
Many of us think that mindfulness means relaxation or the absence of thoughts. People sometimes say, "I tried meditation but it didn't work. I never relax and I can't stop thinking." Or, "I tried mindfulness but I kept falling asleep so I stopped." These common experiences of trying mindfulness practices can create a sense of inadequacy or failure during particularly vulnerable times.
Meditation is one of many ways to practice mindfulness, but some people feel intimidated or just bored by the idea of meditation. People may think mindfulness requires athletic yoga postures or sitting cross-legged. Believing that mindfulness demands physical endurance or flexibility can get in the way of simple and comfortable ways to practice present awareness.
Physical symptoms and painful emotional patterns can seem insurmountable. However, with creativity and support, everyone can access skilled awareness practice. You don't need to be able to maintain a particular physical posture, follow your breathing or concentrate for even a minute at a time to begin practicing mindfulness.
Mindfulness has become a frequently used word in communities concerned with well-being, health and healing.
This recent wide-spread interest in mindfulness is a response to the fact that mindfulness works. Practicing mindfulness is effective in reducing suffering. The popular press has reported on an ever-increasing body of research which finds benefits to mindfulness practice. Studies have concluded that people practicing mindfulness techniques daily heal faster, report decreased pain and relapse less frequently, than similar people who are not engaged mindfulness practices. (Please see Resources for references.)
In the last five years, the concept of mindfulness and its potential for helping people feel better has become accepted in much of mainstream medicine and psychiatry. People coping with medical problems, acute or chronic pain, or grief and loss, are often instructed to relax and be mindful. However, sometimes the therapists and doctors prescribing mindfulness are not familiar with what mindful awareness really is, what it feels like or how to cultivate it.
Common misunderstandings of mindfulness may mean that some people who are interested in benefiting from mindfulness skills, don't get to experience the potential that presence can bring to reducing suffering and transforming experience.