Mindfulness refers to a meditative practice most commonly associated with Buddhism that dates back to 25 centuries ago as part of the Buddha’s teachings. It has become increasingly popular in the Western world over the past 2 decades. Mindfulness meditation involves the practice of becoming fully aware of the present moment and all that is happening in the moment. Observations of the present moment are made without judgment, without categorization or opinion. Rather, the idea is to observe what is actually there in the moment.
Becoming fully aware of the present moment through the practice of mindfulness meditation is thought to make it possible for people to truly experience life, because life can only be found in the present moment. The premise is that individuals often spend much time thinking about the past, the future, or places other than where they actually are. Our attention is given to things that take away from our ability to accurately perceive and experience the present. Living out of the moment separates us from our experiences and makes it more difficult to deal with life in an effective and mindful fashion. Our minds are occupied by thinking, judging, worry, or other distractions, with the result that we are not being fully aware of the present. The belief is that if we are not really there (or fully present), it is difficult to see things deeply and clearly. Instead, we perceive events in a vague fashion without deep understanding. Further, by living so much out of the moment or in a mindless fashion, we are not truly ourselves. That is, by functioning with our minds elsewhere, in the past or in the future, our body and mind are separated from each other. By practicing mindfulness in a concentrated fashion, our body and mind become one or are reunified and we become our true selves.
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The ability to practice mindfulness must be learned and developed through regular practice. Certain methods are taught to develop the capacity for mindfulness, with attention to the breath being one of the most important. For example, one might pay attention to inhaling and exhaling by saying such things as, “Breathing in I know that this is my in-breath, and breathing out I know that this is my out-breath.” By paying attention to breathing in and out, the individual is brought to the present moment. Distracting thoughts and emotions that divide one’s attention and interfere with clear thinking and perception are removed. In a sense, everything stops, and what is left is the present moment with all of its contents. The practice of mindfulness (being in the present moment) can be done in a fashion that is traditionally associated with meditative practice. For example, it may be practiced in a quiet setting set aside as a place for meditation using specific steps designed to develop the capacity for mindfulness in an optimal fashion. However, expert practitioners of mindfulness make it clear that the practice can also be done in any daily activity such as washing dishes, driving a car, or walking.
By engaging in the practice of mindfulness, one is more prepared to deal with life’s challenges. For example, if one’s anger is triggered, the practice of mindfulness might be to return to breathing and say something like, “Breathing in I know that I am angry; breathing out I know that I am angry.” The anger is not suppressed or avoided. Rather, it is noted or observed. There is no judgment about whether or not one should be angry, but rather, one simply notes that one is angry. Even though the anger is still there, it has already become different. The person is taking appropriate care of his or her anger by acknowledging it and looking deeply into it. This practice is thought to bring about a transformation by creating the ability to look deeply into the anger and to see the roots of it through deep awareness so that it can be released. Suffering is released through awareness and understanding. The same process is applied to other difficulties such as depression, anxiety, or other forms of suffering. Also, the practice of mindfulness is thought to allow people to realize that they are more than their sickness, more than their sorrow, more than their suffering.
Practitioners say that when fully developed, mindfulness permits people to keep themselves free of mental barriers, to achieve liberation from their suffering, and to be less vulnerable to the ups and downs of living. The sort of deep observation produced through mindfulness is said to lead to the complete absence of confusion. Also, practitioners of mindfulness note that while peace is important, the capacity to enjoy peace is important too, and the practice of mindfulness cultivates the capacity to enjoy peace as well. Peace, happiness, and joy are said to be available in the present moment if one has the capacity to experience them.
Mindfulness Applications to Counseling and Health
Mindfulness meditation is being used with increasing frequency in areas related to mental health. For example, Marsha Linehan has incorporated the practice of mindfulness meditation into her treatment approach, termed dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), for borderline personality disorder. Part of the approach includes what she has called “core mindfulness skills,” which are essentially techniques that make it possible for the client to become more fully aware of his or her experiences and to develop the capacity to stay with the experience in the present moment, rather than being overwhelmed or distracted by thoughts and feelings that might otherwise block progress. Mindfulness meditation is also being used in some cognitive treatments for depression.
Also, the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School was established in 1995. The center has a mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) program, which is one of a number of successful initiatives developed to assist people through the use of mindfulness meditation. Further, The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine has been funding research on the practice of mindfulness.
Other Applications of Mindfulness
Several other examples of the growing popularity of mindfulness meditation can be found. A number of prominent law schools are using mindfulness meditation to improve the ability to listen and function more skillfully. A notable example can be found at the University of Missouri School of Law, which has established the Initiative on Mindfulness in Law and
Dispute Resolution, which involves research, teaching in law school courses, and public service using the practice of mindfulness meditation. The practice is used to help lawyers, litigants, mediators, and others listen better, improve self-awareness and understanding of others, manage stress more effectively, and function better in general. Mindfulness meditation is also being used by some professional sports teams and some corporations.
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