What exactly is mindfulness? That is a big question—more than can be answered in one simple blog post (hence an entire blog exploring mindfulness and body). But let’s give it a go, at least a little mini-intro to some of the basics.
In many ways’ mindfulness can be compared to a baby learning to walk. A baby learning to walk delights in each new sensation of taking a step and finding balance. When you watch a baby taking its first steps, their attention is completely transfixed on the process of walking. Learning to walk requires many missteps and failed attempts, and yet typically, each time a baby falls in this process, they pop right back up and try again, and again, and again, learning something new each time. Mindfulness is seeing and experiencing things with fresh eyes, as if for the first time, and each time you fall, returning to the freshness of the present moment, again and again, without judgment for having “fallen” or for any aspect of the experience, whether pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. It’s commonly referred to as having a beginner’s mind,1 observing the present moment with a sense of curiosity and openness, as if for the first time, without layering expectations, habits, and previous experiences over the present moment. Each moment is a new moment, a new beginning, as we return our attention to the present again and again.
The most commonly used definition of mindfulness comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn, Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.2 Jon Kabat-Zinn is one of the key teachers that really brought mindfulness practices to the west in a way that made them accessible. He first discovered these practices himself while a student at MIT working toward his PhD in molecular biology, during which time he was introduced to Zen practices. He eventually started the Stress Reduction Clinic at the UMass Medical School in 1979 where he started working with patients with chronic pain and chronic illnesses, through what would eventually become the most researched mindfulness program in the west: Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).
Since that time there has been a proliferation of research on mindfulness showing a myriad of benefits for physical and mental health. Some areas in which benefits have been documented include depression, anxiety, emotion regulation, pain, fatigue, quality of life, attention, and the list goes on. Despite the proliferation of research, we are still relatively early in building a scientific understanding of mindfulness, how it works, why it works, when it works, and for whom it works, but so far, the evidence is promising.*
In action, the practice of mindfulness is noticing when our attention is pulled away from the present moment and returning our attention back to the present moment, without judgment. Noticing and returning, again and again, without judgment, always back to the experience of the present moment.
The body is often used as a starting point for learning mindfulness practices, because the body is always in the present moment. Our minds may time travel to the future or the past, but our body is never anywhere but the present. We can access the body as an anchor to the present moment at anytime, anywhere. You might give it a try right now – do you notice the sensations where your body makes contact with the chair? Or your feet with the ground beneath you? What about your hands or fingertips on the digital device you’re using to read this post? In the process, you might notice any judgments or other thoughts that arise and see if you can gently bring your attention back to the pure sensations of the body in this moment, now. If you just did this little experiment, you just practiced mindfulness.
A final point in this very brief introduction to mindfulness, start where you are. I love this picture because it’s kind of gritty and imperfect with oil stains and slight debris. This is the reality of being alive. It’s not about perfect conditions or getting it just right but starting with what we have and where we are in this moment now.
*It is also important to note there is growing evidence of when mindfulness practices cause harm—that will be a separate post. Take away message: this is a powerful tool to be implemented thoughtfully, with proper guidance—again, a separate post.
1 Suzuki, S. (2010). Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice. Shambhala Publications.
2 Kabat-Zinn, J. (2009). Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. Hachette Books.