The rise of mindfulness, and its role in psychology

Published: March 6, 2018 / 0 Comments


Study after study has proved the mental and physical benefits of paying attention to the present moment. But how exactly do you practice mindfulness?

Key takeaways

  • A word coined by Jon Kabat-Zinn, “mindfulness” is defined as paying attention on purpose, fully in the present moment, and entirely without judgment.
  • Mindfulness has been proved to have numerous benefits for both physical and mental wellbeing.
  • Meditation is the key to the practice of mindfulness. Yoga or even a purpose-designed app may be useful introductions to the art of meditation.

Recent scientific research into ancient meditation techniques has demonstrated the numerous benefits of mindfulness for body and mind. In particular, mindfulness decreases stress, anxiety, depression, irritability, emotional reactivity, and fatigue.

It also reduces what psychologists call “rumination” – that is, compulsive thinking with negative effect. It regulates emotions and improves concentration, working memory, and cognitive flexibility.

But what exactly is mindfulness? And how can its benefits be harnessed to improve mental wellbeing?

Mindfulness demystified

Jon Kabat-Zinn, a leading pioneer of the mindfulness movement and the founder of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR), defines mindfulness as “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”

Let’s take a look at this definition more closely…

  • “Paying attention…” At any given moment, the mind has its attention on something or another. But there are different qualities of attention. Sometimes attention is focused and steady, sometimes scattered and unstable. Mindfulness belongs to the focused and steady kind of attention.
  • “On purpose…” Specifically, mindfulness is purposeful attention. If you’re mindful of something – the breath, let’s say – it’s because you’ve purposefully directed your attention there. So we’re not talking about random, scattered attention. We’re talking about focused, intentionally directed attention.
  • In the present moment…” There is no other moment in which to do anything. Mindfulness does not indulge in memories of yesterday or hang onto happy nostalgia or bad feelings about the past. Mindfulness does not get entangled in hopes and fears about the future. Mindfulness is about cultivating an awareness and appreciation of the here and now, of the richness of your present experience.
  • “Non-judgmentally.” Especially in meditation, mindfulness is not about accepting or rejecting anything. Whatever thoughts, feelings, or perceptions come up in the context of mindfulness are not regarded as good or bad, but simply as part of the colourful tapestry of the mind.    

Why mindfulness?

According to a study conducted at The Ohio State University, office workers who practiced stress reduction techniques based on mindfulness for 20 minutes a day testified to an average 11% decrease in perceived stress.

Research published in the Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine showed that just eight weeks of MBSR techniques brought about benefits in the immune systems of individuals with prostate or breast cancer, corresponding to a reduction in the symptoms of depression.

Another study, this one published in Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice (issue 10), showed that Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy, a branch of MBSR, reduced the probability of repetition for patients who had experienced at least three bouts of depression.

And, finally, research published in the Journal of Counseling & Development proved that, after 15 weeks of practicing MBSR techniques, study participants reported enhanced emotional and physical wellbeing, with a positive influence on their relationships.

Mindfulness and meditation

The key to the practice of mindfulness is meditation. However, even though “mindfulness” has become a popular buzzword, the subject of psychological research and many a TED talk, some misconceptions still exist around the word “meditation”.

Contrary to popular belief, meditation is not some new age preoccupation. It does not require you to chant in some weird language or to wear exotic clothes. In fact, you don’t need to pick up a new set of beliefs or buy into a new religion to meditate. All you need is the willingness to spend a little time with your thoughts.

Still, it might be daunting to just plop down onto a cushion and start meditating right away. It may be less intimidating to take some baby steps to get used the whole idea.

Because it’s well defined and physical, yoga may be more approachable for you as an introduction to meditation. Relaxing and mindful, yoga also has a great number of health benefits, including reducing stress, increasing flexibility and suppleness, and easing muscle and joint pain.

Alternatively, download an app. Seriously. While it might feel pretty awkward to go sit on a cushion when you’ve never done anything like that before, if there’s someone guiding you through the process, you won’t be plagued by as many doubts about the whole thing. And there are many apps designed for just that.

What both of these preliminaries have in common is that all involve “paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally”. In other words, being mindful. And both psychology and science show that cultivating these qualities of the mind can help us develop the inner resourcefulness and mental strength needed for dealing with the many challenges and opportunities life throws at us.

The incorporation of mindfulness is just one example of the interesting ways in which the field of psychology continues to evolve. If you’re interested in being a part of the future, you should consider studying psychology at SACAP. A range of psychology courses are on offer, and distance-learning options are also available. For more information, enquire now.

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