“The only way to help somebody change is to help them change their awareness of themselves.”Abraham Maslow
Mindfulness is a practice of noticing, being aware, and being in the present moment. You can be mindful of your thoughts, your emotions, your breath. You can be mindful of physical sensations, and you can employ any, or all, of your five senses in being mindful of your present surroundings.
My clients are often confused when it comes to the concept and practice of mindfulness. Often their understanding of mindfulness stems from their exposure to the practice of meditation. And while one would certainly be correct in thinking that meditation is a form of mindfulness practice, the reverse is not accurate. That is, all types of meditation are practices in mindfulness, but all practices in mindfulness do not necessarily involve meditation.
Meditation in History
Meditative practice is believed to date back some 5,000 years. There are historical references to various forms of meditative and contemplative practices in most of all the world religions. In fact, in the book of Joshua of the Old Testament, there is the line: “Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it.” With this said, the majority of historical references to formal meditative practice are most associated with Indian Hinduism and Eastern Buddhism philosophy and theology and date back some 3,000 years. To this day, the practice of meditation remains an important element of Buddhist theology.
Meditation Comes to the West
The first formal introduction of meditation practice to the United States was by Swami Vivekananda in Chicago in 1893. It was here that he represented India and Hinduism, and spoke at the “Parliament of Religions,” a gathering of some 7,000 people representing most of the world’s religions. It was in the early 1960’s that medical researchers first began to formally study the physiological benefits of meditation. In these studies, researchers found that people who regularly engaged in a meditative practice exhibited lower heart rates and blood pressure, consumed less oxygen, and had significant changes in brain activity compared to non-meditators. They also found that many of the observed physiological changes had lasting health benefits such as, improved sleep, improved cardio-respiratory function, and reduction in depression and stress related illnesses. It was 1968, when the Beatles made headlines with their trip to India to attend a mediation training session with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and Time magazine declared 1968 the “Year of the Guru,” that many believe signaled the mainstream acceptance of meditation in the West.
Mindfulness without Meditation
As I referenced at the outset of this piece, simply put, mindfulness is a practice that improves our ability to notice. It improves our ability to be to be present. It is a practice of self-exploration, to be done with a sense of curiosity, openness and acceptance. Contrary to what many people believe, mindfulness does not involve emptying one’s mind of thought. It is not a passive exercise, and in fact, takes effort and commitment. Mindfulness can be practiced both formally and informally. Meditation is an example of a formal mindful practice. But meditation is but one of literally hundreds of ways that we can practice mindfulness. We can sit and mindfully observe birds feeding, clouds passing, or a leaf floating down a stream. We can walk mindfully, slowly and deliberately, watching every step we take and observing all that occurs. We can mindfully observe the sounds in our environment. We can mindfully drink a cup of tea, experiencing physical sensations such as temperature, sweetness, aroma, color and observe how it feels on our tongue, in our throat, and as it moves down our esophagus on its way to our stomach. We can then observe how it makes us feel, if it triggers any thoughts or memories, if it causes us to feel a sense of calm. When we do things mindfully our goal is to be fully present, open, and accepting of whatever arises. We engage in the practice of mindfulness with the intention of increasing our ability to be aware of our thoughts and emotions. Practiced diligently, mindfulness will increase our ability to “step back,” put some room between ourselves and our thoughts and emotions. (See my blog “I Think, Therefore I AM”, 4/26/23). The goal of practicing mindfulness is to live more mindfully, and in doing so, being less reactive, more thoughtful, responsive, and compassionate, more effective in living a life imbued by our values, and ultimately, being who and how we want to be in our day-to-day life. (Watch for my future blog on the How To’s of Practicing Mindfulness)