Over the past two decades or so, psychologists and mental health practitioners have paid increasing attention to the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness, broadly defined, is a nonjudgmental, present-centered state of self-consciousness. When we are being mindful, we pay attention to the thoughts and emotions without reacting to them. You might think about mindfulness as a means by which we take a more objective, dispassionate view of our inner psychological workings. We ‘see’ our thoughts and emotions for what they are without responding to them. Importantly, both researchers and practitioners highlight this state of consciousness as being able to carve out an important ‘space’ between thoughts, emotions with action . By cultivating mindfulness, we can exert a greater degree of control over behaviours; we can choose not to act on the impulse of certain thoughts and emotions.
Mindfulness – along with a host of mindfulness-based interventions, owes it introduction to mainstream fields of mental health and psychological well being to one Jon Kabat-Zinn. Kabat-Zinn developed, and subsequently, tested a mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program. The initial results were promising, with one of his early studies of patients suffering from chronic pain (in the lower back, neck, shoulder and headaches) reporting as much as a 50% decrease in pain after going through the mindfulness stress reduction and relaxation training . More recent studies have also shown mindfulness to be helpful in aiding individuals regulate their emotions. One study showed that more mindful individuals were better able to ward of depressive symptoms. The more mindful individuals from this study experienced higher levels of positive emotions, were better able to regulate their moods, and, importantly, showed higher levels of self-acceptance – all of which ultimately led them to experience lower levels of depressive symptoms. Results from similar studies all point to a similar conclusion – that mindfulness – be it in the form of deliberate practice of mindfulness (for instance, via mindfulness meditation), or simply individuals with higher levels of mindfulness (dispositional mindfulness), are more likely to report higher levels of psychological well-being .
The science of mindfulness is not without its skeptics, of course, with criticism of mindfulness directed towards ‘watered down’ versions of what mindfulness is. For one, there is a mistaken assumption that mindfulness is about simply ‘letting your emotions go’. Another misconception that we feel needs to be addressed is that mindfulness is the cure-all for all physical and psychological conditions. A more accurate perspective on mindfulness sees it as a practical, potent, and complement to whichever other forms of treatment you are receiving for your physical or psychological maladies.
When you practice mindfulness, you can think of it as helping you sharpen your perspective towards the present, focusing your attention towards your current circumstances, and, ultimately, allowing you greater opportunity to choose a course of action that will lead to a more wholesome outcome. Mindfulness carves out an important space between your thoughts, emotions and your actions. Being mindful means not allowing temporary thoughts and emotions to motivate a potentially damaging or unhealthy set of (re)actions. The next time you experience strong emotions, try being just that bit more dispassionate towards it. Remember that your emotions want you to act in a certain way, but, by being mindful of this simple fact, you can take steps to choose an alternative.