When life gets complicated and overwhelming, one of our common defence mechanisms is to escape reality. While escapism isn’t bad in moderation, indulging in it can take us too much out of the experience of living. For those who feel they’re avoiding reality rather than really living it, mindfulness might be the answer. This ancient meditative practice has become extremely popular as a tool for reducing anxiety, improving concentration and self-control, increasing compassion, and generally making life better. But is mindfulness really everything its promoters claim it is? Read on to find out what this practice is and what it can (and can’t) do for you.
To put it simply, mindfulness is the practice of focusing on what’s happening in the present moment. If that sounds unimpressive, consider the following scenario: you get in your car to drive to work, the grocery store or some other familiar place. The next thing you know, you’re already there… with next to no memory of anything that happened along the way. It goes without saying that this is the opposite of mindfulness. And yet, operating on autopilot is an all too common experience for many of us. Aside from making us worse drivers, “shutting our brains off” while we’re going about our everyday routines also means we’re drifting half asleep through parts of the day. And that can’t be good.
That’s not to say that a little daydreaming now and then is a bad thing. Rather, practitioners of mindfulness believe that learning to be attentive in the moment makes us not only aware of our surroundings but also more receptive to our thoughts and feelings. This helps us manage our internal lives better, making us calmer and happier people. In other words, mindfulness is more than knowing what street you’re on; it’s about learning how to handle the emotions that come at you over the course of a normal day.
Mindfulness actually goes way, way back, with roots in the early days of Buddhism over 2,000 years ago. In Buddhism, mindfulness is considered an essential component of the path to enlightenment. Achieving mindfulness is a major goal of meditation and Buddhist practice in general, and it’s something that people spend years—even lifetimes—trying to master.
But here in the West, mindfulness has taken on a life of its own. It first gained attention in the 1970s when doctors and psychologists started looking at its potential as a stress buster. Since then, a whole movement has emerged around mindfulness meditation, turning it into a billion-dollar industry. Unfortunately, this movement has been a little over zealous at times, promoting mindfulness as a miracle cure-all for all kinds of maladies, including arthritis, depression, diabetes, insomnia, obesity and heart disease. For that reason, some serious practitioners have mixed feelings about seeing the spiritual practice they know turned into a commodity.
Though the benefits of mindfulness are sometimes exaggerated, research does suggest that it can help mental health and ability. Many studies have shown that it reduces stress and the tendency to ruminate on negative thoughts, while also making it easier for people to work through negative emotions. Other studies support the idea that mindfulness improves memory and concentration and boosts cognitive flexibility and adaptability. There’s evidence, too, that mindfulness correlates with stronger relationships, as practitioners can handle relationship stress better and are more skilled at communicating their emotions.
So, it seems that mindfulness can be good for you. However, as is the case with a lot of popular self-help movements, it’s often best to look past the hype and “guarantees” and instead set some meaningful and achievable skills to come away with. Sometimes, it’s enough just to remind ourselves now and then to open our eyes and take a look around. t8n
MBSR, a program founded at the University of Massachusetts in 1979, helped popularize mindfulness
in the West. The program uses meditation, relaxation and teaching to help patients improve awareness and reduce stress and stress-related conditions.