Every time Rob walks outside a building he tries to pay attention to how the air or sun feels on his skin. He focuses on listening and thinks, "What can I hear? What colors can I can see? How is my body feeling?" When he can't get outside, in between meetings or on his way to the watercooler, he tries to pay attention to the sensation in his feet as he walks. He finds moments throughout his day to spend a minute or two just trying to be mindful. What's going on here?
Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as, “awareness that arises from paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
Mindfulness is not stopping our thoughts, making our minds blank, or forcing relaxation. It is a practice of attending to our experiences as they unfold with friendliness and curiosity.
In the case study above, my colleague, Rob Davies, is using simple awareness techniques to incorporate mindfulness into his everyday routine. Over time, these practices have been shown to reduce stress.
Why is mindfulness important?
The last four decades of studies demonstrate that mindfulness in medicine improves quality of life for both the patient and the healer.
Happy patients. Regular mindfulness practice, as a complement to standard medical and psychological treatments, can play an important role in managing and reducing stress and symptoms of numerous conditions: pain, gastrointestinal distress, high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, anxiety, panic attacks, depression, and addiction.
Happy providers. Mindfulness has been shown to reduce stress and burnout for medical providers. It promotes skills for patient-centered care and results in more highly rated medical care.
Happy workforce. Mindfulness has been shown to promote four real benefits for employees: stronger focus, staying calmer under stress, better memory, and civility.
Happy brain. Regular mindfulness practice improves executive functioning and emotional regulation (and has been shown to actually increase gray matter in parts of the brain that are responsible for these functions).
Figure 1. Three skills cultivated by mindfulness. Adapted from Posner and colleagues (2015).
Happy life. Mindfulness contributes to well-being. It helps us to be present for our lives, which allows us to enjoy pleasant experiences, to gain perspective for responding to unpleasant experiences, and to be more at ease with life’s ever changing nature. Most importantly, mindful awareness enables us to live in accordance with our values, being and becoming the person we want to be.
How to practice mindfulness
As we have exercises for the body, there are exercises for the mind and heart, formal and informal practices, to cultivate mindful awareness. These practices below can be done individually or as a group.
As with other forms of exercise, it is important to tune in. If you experience moderate to high levels of discomfort or emotional and/or physical distress, please stop and consult with a qualified or certified mindfulness teacher, mental health provider, or medical practitioner.
Formal practices, like different forms of meditation, encourage us to schedule time to learn how to relate directly with present moment experiences such as sensations of the breath or the body. Short practices such as these can provide a taste of some introductory practices to mindfulness.
Informal practices involve bringing intention, attention, and attitudes of mindfulness to routine activities such as eating, driving, or hugging a loved one. Below is a practice for mindful breaks during the day.
Mindfulness classes and apps can provide the structure and community helpful for developing a daily mindfulness practice. The following is a list of applications* to help get you started.
|App*||What it's called||What you'll find|
|Insight Meditation Timer||
|Stop, Breathe, and Think||
Practiced for thousands of years in various spiritual traditions, mindfulness is a natural human capacity for compassionate awareness. Mindfulness practices enhance focus and mental clarity while deepening connection to ourselves and others, to what is most meaningful in our lives at work and at home. This awareness also helps us to access our own natural capacity to heal, to cope with stress, and to improve resilience.