Have you heard of mindfulness? It is an ancient practice at the core of Buddhist teachings. It is not a belief or ideology, but more a way of attending to your experience and the world around you. Mindfulness is the process of paying attention, on purpose to your world in the present moment. It is bringing an open and non-judgmental awareness to both your internal feelings and thoughts and your experiences as you encounter events in day-to-day life. And it is gaining in popularity.
Ten years ago, the practice of mindfulness was growing in the treatment of clinical conditions, such as chronic pain and depression. Today Mindfulness is gaining acceptance as a tool to lower stress levels, and emotional reactivity while improving focus, productivity and attention in a wide variety of settings. Corporate and non-profit leaders, as well as students, nurses and Doctors all can receive training in mindfulness.
In our modern environment, where we are perpetually bombarded with multiple streams of information and tasked with completing more in less time, we can become stressed and unfocused. Human cognition is not well suited for the unremitting pressure to do more and more at once. Research on multi-tasking shows that our brains are not structured to process information from multiple sources at once (Opher, Nass and Wagner, 2009). Surrounded by too much information and a sensory overload, the cultivation of attention and focus has a particular appeal.
Mindfulness practitioners, such as Jon Kabat-Zinn (who has taught and researched the practice of mindfulness for thirty years at The Center for Mindfulness) and Thich Nhat Hahn (a Buddhist monk who writes and teaches about mindfulness practice in everyday life) have done much to raise the prevalence of mindfulness practice. In his research on the practice of Mindfulness at The Center for Mindfulness, Kabat-Zinn has found improvements in medical and psychological symptoms across a wide range of medical diagnoses, including many chronic pain conditions, anxiety and panic, psoriasis and immune response. The practice is currently used in a wide variety of settings to improve clinical conditions, such as prostate cancer, bone marrow transplants and depression.
Research on the brain has also played a role in the expanding popularity of mindfulness practice. Using fMRI imaging to see activity in the brain, scientists are now better able to study and understand the impact that mindfulness practice has on brain activity. For example, short-term mindfulness practice has been found to increase activity in regions of the brain associated with positive mood (Davidson et. al., 2003).
There seems to be no one answer to the growing prevalence of mindfulness practice. It’s effectiveness in improving a wide range of clinical conditions and the increasing body of research that indicates positive effects on brain functioning both play a role. But, perhaps the most significant cause for the emergence of mindfulness in everyday life is the fast-paced, stressful and demanding world we live in. Staying focused, listening to people with our full attention, being aware of emotions and experiencing them when they occur, engaging in activities without rushing or being distracted and finding words to describe your internal experience are all benefits that occur with the practice of mindfulness. When we don’t make a conscious effort to control our focus and attention, we can lose ourselves in demands of our world.