What is Mindfulness?

Jon Kabat-zinn defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” If this isn’t quite connecting, don’t worry! Mindfulness is best understood experientially and I'll give you some recommendations to experiment with at the end of the blog. It might also be helpful to clear up some common misconceptions about mindfulness. 


Misconceptions About Mindfulness

1. It is Not a Religion.

First and foremost, mindfulness is not a religion. Although it is often associated with Buddhism, mindfulness is found in many different religious traditions including Christianity and Judaism. So while mindfulness is sometimes associated with and practiced as part of various religious traditions, mindfulness itself is not a religion or necessarily a part of a religious practice.


2. It is Not a Relaxation Technique

Mindfulness is not a relaxation technique. Many people hold this misconception and it truly misses the point. The point of mindfulness is not to change your experience in any way; it is to learn how to be open and willing to be present with whatever is already here in the moment, even if it is difficult. Often times, following a mindfulness practice, people will feel more relaxed, but not always, and this is certainly not the point, it is just a welcome byproduct. Mindfulness is about learning how to be welcoming of whatever your experience is. It is about learning to be present with whatever is here. We are not trying to eliminate, control, or distract from difficult thoughts and feelings. In fact, in many ways, we are trying to do the exact opposite of that and make contact with them. 


3. It is Not about Clearing Your Mind

Another common misconception people have about mindfulness is that when people are meditating their mind’s become clear. I have heard things from clients like, “oh, I tried mindfulness, it didn’t work for me” meaning that either they didn’t feel relaxed when they were doing it, a misconception we already covered, or that their mind didn’t somehow miraculously shut off when they started meditating. Sorry to break it to you but if your mind ever did shut off, you would be dead! This is just the nature of the mind, there is always going to be some chatter. Maybe some days there is just a little chatter and other days you have racing thoughts that flood the mind. Here you would use mindfulness to just notice what is showing up without judgment. On that note, sometimes people also misunderstand the idea of nonjudgment. Practicing nonjudgment doesn’t mean that you aren’t going to have reactions to things. Again, you are a human being; you are going to have reactions to things! It simply means holding your judgment lightly or observing them as though from a distance. For example, if you try mindfulness of sounds, you might notice yourself having reactions to sounds of either liking or disliking. Sometimes, I practice mindfulness in my office in DTLA and will hear cars honking, construction noises, and people yelling. I simply notice my reactions to these sounds. Sometimes they make me angry and I want them to stop. I simply notice these reactions as a part of my practice.


4. It is Not a Quick Fix

You may not want to hear this, but this is just the way it is: Mindfulness is not a quick fix. You may have heard many wonderful things about mindfulness, and there are many wonderful things about mindfulness, but that doesn’t mean that after experimenting with mindfulness for a week your life is somehow going to miraculously change. Now, that is not to say that you need to become a monk and meditate for hours a day for years to experience benefits either! In fact, most of the research on mindfulness has been done on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), which was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, in which people meditate for about 40 minutes a day for 8 weeks. But don’t worry, you don’t need to meditate for 40 minutes a day either! A recent metanalysis on mindfulness-based interventions found that even small “doses” of mindfulness can be helpful. Mindfulness is like any skill you want to develop it is something you have to practice on a consistent basis over time, but it doesn’t need to take a lot of time out of your day or take years before you notice benefits. In my own meditation practice, I rarely meditate for more than 5-10 minutes unless I go to a sitting group or am on a retreat, and while I have been practicing mindfulness for several years, I noticed benefits after practicing consistently for a few weeks. I would encourage you to start with something that works for you!


What Are The Benefits of Mindfulness?

There is vast empirical support for the benefits of mindfulness. It helps with stressdepression and anxiety. It reduces rumination, improves emotion regulation and cognitive flexibility. It decreases emotional reactivity. It even improves working memory and focus


"The good thing is you can easily increase your capacity to live now through practicing mindfulness and loving awareness. Neuroscience shows that mindful awareness can measurably develop in just weeks of training. And with awareness grows resilience, greater access to compassion, neural integration, emotional stability, inner regulation, physical healing, and joy."


~Jack Kornfield


How Does Mindfulness Work?

Using neuroimaging techniques, researchers found that mindfulness was associated with reduced bilateral amygdala activation (i.e., the threat center of the brain) and greater widespread prefrontal cortical activation (i.e., the part of the brain involved with things like self-control, planning, problem-solving, and decision-making). In other words, mindfulness helps you to be less reactive and more reflective, which will allow you to make decisions that are more in alignment with your values.


How Do You Practice Mindfulness?

There are many ways to get started with mindfulness. Check out some of the exercises on my homepage, try out some of the websites and apps on my resources page, or buy my new book!

If you are interested in learning more or in working with me please go to my homepage to contact me or schedule your free 15-minute phone call.


Please note that the information in this blog is intended for informational purposes only. It should not be used as a substitute for psychological or medical care. If you are looking for professional help, visit my resources page for guidance on how to find a therapist. If you are experiencing a mental health emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest ER.

© 2020 Carissa Gustafson, Psy.D.  All rights reserved.

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