If you’ve ever encountered the self-help field before, you’ve no doubt heard something about mindfulness meditation. It’s becoming quite the buzzword these days, and companies and mobile apps worldwide are eager to get on the mindfulness bandwagon.

So what’s the deal with mindfulness? What is it? What are the benefits of a mindfulness regimen? In this post, we’ll take a closer look at why mindfulness is receiving so much attention.

Background

When you think about mindfulness meditation, one of a few images probably comes to mind. To borrow a few archetypes from Chris Goto-Jones’ Coursera course, “Demystifying Mindfulness”, you might imagine:

The Monk, centered and internally-oriented

Cartoon image of meditator

Or, perhaps The Warrior, focused and ready to act

Adorable cartoon ninja

Or maybe The Zombie, cold, detached, and lifeless

Cartoon punk-style zombie girl

Clearly, mindfulness has a strange and varied background. There are many interpretations, and no one can quite seem to agree exactly what it means. However, there is one common thread to all of these archetypes: some form of stillness, or acceptance, or stoicism — whatever you want to call it.

And that’s our first key to understanding what mindfulness really is.

What Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness gets its name because it is the opposite of mindlessness. To do something mindlessly would be to take action without really paying attention; to go through the motions. Mindfulness is about paying really, really close attention to the object of our awareness. Sometimes this “object” is outside of ourselves (in the environment), and sometimes we are the “object”.

There are a lot of ways we can use mindfulness, but we’ll discuss here the ones that particularly pertain to us.

Sensory Awareness

One common form of mindfulness is to bring our awareness to what our body is sensing. For example, you might close your eyes, and use your ears to really listen to everything that’s going on around you, trying to pick out all the different sounds and noises. Even one sound is often incredibly complex, if you really analyze it. If your hearing is particularly honed, you can even dissect the sound into components like pitch, intensity, etc.

Snipped of audio data

Add to that the fact that your can usually hear several sounds at once and the audio world offers a pretty complex experience.1

Another form of sensory mindfulness is to focus on physical sensations. You might notice how your weight shifts across the bottom of your foot as you slowly walk. You might pick up on your clothing against your skin, or perhaps the wind against the hairs on your arms.

Importantly, the idea is to do this “non-judgmentally”. You’re not labeling your experiences as “good” or “bad”, but simply observing them and taking note.

However you choose to practice this form of mindfulness, the intent is about the same: noticing what often goes unnoticed. Our brains tend to filter out information that it deems non-critical. Have you ever noticed how quickly you stop noticing a smell? Or how “white noise” like a fan running stops bothering you after a short time? Your brain is quick to filter our unchanging, unoriginal information.

But there are two main reasons it’s good to focus our attention on exactly this non-critical information:

  1. Injecting some awe, serenity, or other positive emotions into our life
  2. Becoming better at noticing what our senses are telling us

First, life can be an incredibly rich experience. There’s an amazing level of detail to be experienced by just about every one of your senses, in almost every situation. If nothing else, noticing this detail and living with it, even for a moment, is pretty awe-inspiring.

As for the second point, understanding what our bodies are telling us is an incredibly important skill. From a physical training perspective, this is the type of deliberate practice that builds our proprioception, or awareness of where our bodies are in space. But its effects go far beyond that. However, before we get into the effects, a quick discussion of the other type of mindfulness that concerns us.

Emotional Awareness

Similar to the sensory awareness we discussed above, we can choose to focus our attention on our emotions. Just like our senses, we can learn to notice our emotions. With practice, we can even label them with a name, without judging them as “good” or “bad”. Most importantly, we can do all this without letting them consume us.

It’s important to stress here that the goal is not detachment such that we never feel anything.2It’s about learning to notice an emotional process at work so we can have the awareness to intervene, if need be. When we start to understand our emotions and how they play out, we can begin to catch ourselves as the process starts, and steer it in a different direction.3

Our emotions can make us impulsive, and our impulses aren’t always the best course of action available to us. When we strengthen our awareness with this type of mindfulness, it can give us the power to interrupt impulsive processes. This creates a lot of intriguing possibilities.

The Benefits of Mindfulness

OK, so what’s the point?

As we alluded to above, mindfulness offers an amazing array of benefits. In fact, it’s just about the most powerful and diverse tool we have for improving our psychological and emotional health. Rather than a whole big discussion, we’ll just get right to the point on this one. Here is a compiled list of relevant benefits of mindfulness practices:4

Emotional/Psych

  • Decreases worrying, anxiety, and impulsiveness
  • Lessens stress, fear, loneliness, and depression
  • Enhances self-esteem and self-acceptance
  • Improves resiliency against pain and adversity
  • Increases optimism, relaxation, and awareness
  • Helps prevent emotional eating and smoking
  • Helps develop positive social connections
  • Improves your mood and emotional intelligence

Mind

  • Increases mental strength and focus
  • Increases memory retention and recall
  • Better cognitive skills and creative thinking
  • Better decision making and problem solving
  • Improved information processing
  • Helps ignore distractions, manage ADHD

Body

  • Improves immune system and energy level
  • Improves breathing and heart rates
  • Reduces blood pressure
  • Mitigates inflammatory disorders and asthma
  • Lessens premenstrual and menopausal syndrome

As you can see, really diverse effects. This is why mindfulness is starting to pop up everywhere — there’s probably no one on this planet who couldn’t use at least one of those benefits.

Hopefully that gives you a little better understanding of what mindfulness is and why we use it. For anyone curious about the mechanisms behind mindfulness, we’ll come back to the neuroscience aspects in a future post — subscribe to the newsletter to be informed when it comes out! For now, you can check out Daniel Siegel’s talk at the Google Personal Growth Series, found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gr4Od7kqDT8. To get right to the parts about the middle brain, pick up at the 29:00 minute mark. Enjoy!