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Have you noticed that the practice of mindfulness is the cool kid on the self-improvement block these days? Google hosts meditation programs for its employees, and elite athletes like Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan use mindfulness to help them stay on top of their game. 

In my work as a therapist, I recommend it to my patients and try to practice it myself (though I can’t claim to be perfect by any means). I do so because research on mindfulness has found it to be incredibly beneficial for a host of issues, from reducing depression to promoting rehabilitation for prisoners.

But what exactly is mindfulness? It may call to mind the image of a peaceful yogi sitting cross-legged in quiet contemplation. But you might be surprised to know that mindfulness is not the same thing as meditation. It is actually something anyone can benefit from and comes in many forms. Here’s what you need to know about this buzzword.

What Does Mindfulness Mean?

At its core, mindfulness means being fully engaged in a nonjudgmental way in the present moment by being aware of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and the environment around us. Focusing on the present moment is helpful because anxieties and sadness often occur when we dwell on something that happened in the past or worry about something that might happen in the future.

Why focus on the present in a nonjudgmental way? The point of mindfulness is to notice where you are and what you are experiencing without judging whether it is “good” or “bad.” Once you start evaluating your feelings and surroundings, you open the door for worry and sadness to come in. Think of mindfulness as a way to take a break, for as little or as long as you’d like, from the stress and other negative emotions that you experience on a daily basis. You might even find that you have a heightened awareness of emotions that were previously drowned out by the busyness of everyday life.

Common Misconceptions

There are several misconceptions surrounding mindfulness. One of these, of course, is equating mindfulness with meditation. While mindfulness is an important part of engaging in meditation, which newscaster Dan Harris describes in his book 10% Happier, it can also be practiced without engaging in the actual act of meditating.

A Northern Arizona University research study draws the distinction between psychological mindfulness and mindfulness-based meditative practice. Psychological mindfulness is maintaining an “open, accepting, present focus or attention during day-to-day life,” the study clarifies. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the leading mindfulness researcher in the field of psychology, and developer of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, further clarifies that engaging in mindfulness is a secular practice and not a form of religion. It's true that mindfulness is often used to complement religious practices by quieting one’s mind before prayer or meditation. But while meditation can be a method of practicing mindfulness, mindfulness can also be practiced in non-religious ways. 

Another misconception is that mindfulness is the same as mindlessness. But mindfulness is not at all about disengaging from the world around you. Rather, it’s about being more fully present in what is happening around you. 

Some people also dismiss mindfulness as a New Age-y gimmick that doesn’t really work. But in reality, compelling research conducted on mindfulness has found it to be effective for a multitude of issues. And it’s far from being a gimmick. In fact, it can be quite difficult to achieve. It’s often easier said than done and takes lots of practice. I tell my patients that it’s like learning to swim. You start out slowly at the shallow end (this is practicing mindfulness in short bursts) until you are ready to graduate to the deep end (engaging in longer periods).

The Benefits are Confirmed by Research.

As I mentioned, research has identified some fascinating benefits of mindfulness. It has been found to boost your immune system; reduce stress; decrease depressive symptoms and prevent relapses; increase concentration; and reduce pregnancy-related anxiety, stress, and depression. Other benefits include increased relationship satisfaction, increased working memory, and decreased rumination (dwelling on negative thoughts). It has even been shown to reduce insomnia and fatigue. Some research indicates that practicing mindfulness can alter your brain structure, strengthening the biological connections for concentration and attention while weakening the connections for fear and stress.

Practice Mindfulness With Chocolate (Yes, Really).

There are many ways for novices to put mindfulness into practice, including one that involves chocolate (clients always love this one). The idea is to eat a chocolate bar as slowly and mindfully as possible by engaging all five senses. The book Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World recommends picking up a bar of chocolate in a flavor or brand you don’t typically eat. Instead of ripping open the packaging and popping a square in your mouth like you normally would, unwrap the bar slowly, noticing how the wrapper sounds as it rips. Smell the aroma. Break off a square and pause to look at the square and notice its shape. Then, as you place it in your mouth, notice the texture and flavor. Now you have a great excuse to go out and buy a gourmet bar!

Again, all mindfulness practices center on engaging all five senses to notice the world around you and your own feelings in that moment. You can practice it on the subway, on a walk, at home, and in your office. Florida State University researchers even found that washing dishes mindfully can reduce stress and calm your mind. Be creative!

Everyone can benefit from incorporating mindfulness into their daily lives. You don’t need fancy equipment or specialized training. All it takes is pausing during your day to focus on being in the present moment, taking a break from whatever is stressing you out. Kabat-Zinn says it best in a lecture for the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley: “It’s not really about sitting in the full lotus, like pretending you’re a statue in a British museum. It’s about living your life as if it really mattered, moment by moment by moment by moment.”

Photo Credit: Brittni Willie