Over a relatively short period of time, the concept of mindfulness has quietly spread throughout American culture. From the world of business (e.g., Aetna, Goldman Sachs), to sports (e.g,. NFL, NBA, MLS), government (e.g., the House of Representatives’ “Quiet Time Caucus”), education (e.g., Duke University’s Koru program), and even the military (e.g., the U.S. Army and Marines), a wide variety of institutions and individuals have adopted mindfulness practices. And this is to say nothing about the presence of mindfulness in the healthcare industry, its original point of arrival in the West, when molecular biologist Jon Kabat-Zinn created the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in the 1970s.
So mindfulness is becoming quite popular. In fact, the chances are, that even if you don’t have a meditation practice, you know someone who does. A 2017 survey by the National Center for Health Statistics found that one in seven Americans had practiced some form of meditation that year. This represented a three-fold increase from 2012.
This explosion of interest in mindfulness has been spurred on by the long (and rapidly growing) list of health benefits that mindfulness is related to. A recent 2017 review article on randomized controlled trials (the “gold standard” in medical research) identified that mindfulness practices can improve:
Physical health: including chronic pain, immunity and autoimmune conditions, stress-related conditions (e.g., fibromyalgia, IBS, psoriasis)
Mental health: including depression, anxiety, PTSD
Cognition: most notably attention (e.g., sustained attention, working memory)
This list is just a sample of the benefits that mindfulness practice has to offer.
So, what exactly is mindfulness? And how is it related to meditation?
While mindfulness is a concept that has its roots in early Buddhist philosophy, it is increasingly viewed as a secular practice. Therefore, mindfulness practices are not necessarily associated with any religion.
Defining mindfulness is a bit tricky, as you are likely to get a different definition from each person that you ask, even among the “experts”. However, a commonly referenced definition is “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally” (Jon Kabat-Zinn). Notice the words in bold in that description – they are the two key elements of mindfulness.
Key point #1: there are two elements to mindfulness
The first involves our attention. The second involves the attitude with which we approach the practice – one of nonjudgment
These two aspects are summarized well by Bishop, Lau, and colleagues (2004):
“The first component involves the self-regulation of attention so that it is maintained on immediate experience, thereby allowing for increased recognition of mental events in the present moment. The second component involves adopting a particular orientation toward one’s experiences in the present moment, an orientation that is characterized by curiosity, openness, and acceptance.”
This second component, the importance of one’s attitude (or “orientation”) towards mindfulness is often overlooked, but it is as important as the attentional component (some might even say more important).
Other definitions of mindfulness highlight the fact that it is a naturally occurring state of awareness, meaning that we all experience varying degrees of mindfulness over time. This is an important point to remember – mindfulness is a very natural and normal state for a human being to experience. Indeed, we have probably all had moments when our attention was captivated by one or more of our senses (for example, seeing a natural wonder in person, or listening to one of your favorite songs being played live at a concert), and we simultaneously experienced a moment where we were free of any internal commentary.
Key point #2: mindfulness is a very natural state of awareness
Therefore, mindfulness is an innate capability, a form of awareness that we are all capable of, and have all experienced any number of times in our lives. What this means, then, is that everyone can reach a state of mindfulness.
Key point #3: everyone can experience mindfulness
So if mindfulness is a naturally occurring state of awareness, associated with beneficial health outcomes, what is meditation? And how does it relate to mindfulness?
Meditation can be thought of as a category of practices that are designed to increase mindfulness. These practices involve the regulation of attention, and common examples are breath-focused and body-scan meditations. Most meditation techniques involve the practitioner placing and sustaining their attention on one or more of the five senses (touch, taste, smell, hearing, and/or sight). When the mind (inevitably) drifts off from whatever sensation(s) the practitioner is focusing on, the practitioner gently returns their attention to the target sensation(s). This act of noticing that the mind has wandered and then returning it to the target, or anchor, of the meditation is the crux of the practice. Through repeating this act multiple times, the practitioner is cultivating their ability to be mindful – both during meditation and daily life.
Though frequently grouped together, meditation practices are different from seemingly-similar practices such as breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, and guided imagery or visualizations, as they provide additional benefits beyond these “relaxation exercises” (in fact, relaxation exercises are often used as control groups in studies that investigate the health-related benefits of meditation). These additional benefits are largely in the form of favorable cognitive (e.g., enhanced attention, meta-cognitive awareness, creativity) and affective (e.g., emotion regulation) outcomes. Therefore, it is important to be aware of these differences between similar-sounding techniques when first beginning a meditation practice.
So, to come back to the question “what is the relationship between mindfulness and meditation?”. The answer is … meditation is the practice which leads to increased mindfulness in daily life.
But, how can such a simple practice (we are, after all, merely focusing our attention on physical sensations) produce such profound benefits? How does it work? We will explore these questions in the next article on mindfulness meditation.
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