I know what you’re thinking.  “Mindfulness, schmindfulness.”

I know it’s become a bit of a trendy term like ‘green smoothie’ and ‘smashed avocado’, but did you know that the concepts of mindfulness have actually been around for thousands of years?

Most religions incorporate some sort of mindfulness practice, particularly Eastern ones, but it was actually brought to the mainstream West back in the 70s by a man by the name of Jon Kabat-Zinn.

He was an academic at the time and had a PhD in Molecular Biology but he had a dirty little secret…he used to meditate…and this in the times that it was just hippies and freaks who meditated!

In his professional life, he could see that so many patients, particularly those dealing with chronic pain, just weren’t getting better with traditional methods.  In his personal life, he could recognise the benefits he was gaining through his mindfulness and meditation practices, so one day he decided to combine the two.

He removed all religious connotations from the practices and, in conjunction with the University of Massachusetts Medical Hospital, he set up a program called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction.  All these years later, MBSR is delivered in many different contexts and institutions and is a widely-recognised therapy for a range of issues.

In fact, mindfulness has been researched and is being promoted by some of the world’s leading universities such as Oxford, Harvard and our own Monash University.  A study done by Oxford University showed that one month after doing an online mindfulness course, participants showed a:

  • 58% reduction in anxiety levels
  • 57% reduction in depression
  • 40% reduction in stress

Wow!  This is far higher than any other therapy, including medication.

So, what is mindfulness exactly?  According to Kabat-Zinn, “Mindfulness is not about getting anywhere else — it’s about being where you are and knowing it. … My working definition of mindfulness is the awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose in the present moment — non-judgmentally.”

It’s not about being happy-happy-joy-joy all the time or seeing the world through rose-coloured glasses as some people seem to think.  In fact, it’s the opposite.  So let’s break it down…

‘Paying attention’ – really paying attention.  How many times have you driven to work and when you arrive, you actually can’t remember the drive?  We have so many things competing with our attention these days that this one is really tough.

‘On purpose’ – making a conscious effort to be present and aware.

‘In the present moment’ – OK…this is the hardest one of all.  You see, our highly developed frontal cortex makes us cognitively superior to other animals but it can also be our greatest downfall.  Most of us spend our lives either rehearsing the future or rehashing the past.  It’s very difficult for us to be completely here.  Now.  In the present moment.

‘Non-judgmentally’ – Any of us who have ever experienced any sort of anxiety or overwhelm can relate to this one.  We’re either judging our thoughts or judging ourselves for even having thoughts!  How bizarre.  Mindfulness creates a sense of accepting things as they are, ourselves included. Can you imagine if trees judged themselves as right or wrong?  You don’t get good trees and bad trees…they just are.

You can see from the above that mindfulness is quite simple really – simple but definitely not easy.  For mindfulness to be effective, we need to incorporate it into our daily life.  The reason it’s called a ‘practice’ is because the more you do it, the better you become and the more it becomes second nature, or our default pathway.  This means that instead of reacting (or over-reacting) to events and circumstances, we can take a step back and examine things mindfully.  This in turn, leads to stronger mental health and a more positive state of mind.

Be watching for my next blog post where I give you some easy tips and activities to help you incorporate mindfulness into your daily life.