Martha Lee PhotoMindfulness: More Than Just A Buzzword

By Martha Lee

We hear a lot about mindfulness. You can read any number of articles about it. Corporations like Google, General Mills and Target have invested in making their employees more mindful as a way to increase productivity, creativity and their ability to work through conflict. Increasingly, schools are incorporating mindfulness practices and curriculums as a way to help kids succeed in school. But what exactly is mindfulness? Is it just the most recent buzzword and trend? Far from it!

Here is what mindfulness is and why it matters.

The publication Mindful offers what they call an all-purpose definition: Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us. In other words, it is our ability to be aware of what is going on within and outside of ourselves and not get swept away or caught up in it. Think about it, how many times have you been getting ready to get out the door and been so focused on what you have ahead of you, that you can’t remember what you did with your glasses, or your keys or the cup of coffee that you had only moments ago? According to the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, we are not paying attention 47% of the time. Wow! That is a lot of time and begs the question – what are we missing? It’s probably more than just our keys or glasses.

Mindfulness exists within all of us and can be cultivated. The best way to do that is through any variety of practices that require us to focus our attention on what we are doing and what is happening in the present moment. These practices can include sitting meditation, walking, yoga, or doing a body scan where we bring our awareness to our bodies and check in with our breath and other sensations we are experiencing at the moment. You can think of these practices as exercise for your brain. Research is finding that there are real benefits in doing mindfulness practices daily, including one study showing they lessen our cravings for things we don’t have.

The Holistic Life Foundation, a Baltimore-based nonprofit, is working with children and adults in underserved communities to cultivate their mindfulness as a way to improve their quality of life. They have worked with a number of schools in Baltimore to use mindfulness practices with students as a way to diffuse conflicts that previously would have resulted in detention or suspension.  Kids who have learned different mindfulness practices report feeling more confident in their abilities to calm themselves in the face of stressful situations.

Data shows that when we are distracted and caught up in the past or future, we aren’t very happy or content. To be clear, cultivating our mindfulness doesn’t mean that we will experience nothing but joy and bliss. Far from it! We all know life can be difficult. The difference mindfulness makes is that we can be a witness to our emotions rather than a hostage to them. Andy Puddicombe, a meditation and mindfulness expert, refers to it as the difference between being caught outside in a snow or rainstorm, and being inside looking out at that same storm.

There is so much more I could write about this topic, and I will in the future. But I will close today by sharing a little on my own journey of cultivating mindfulness. A little over four years ago, I began meditating, and since then I have done it almost daily. I have now reached a point where when I miss even two or three days of it, I can really feel it. I have always struggled with feelings of anxiety and used to jokingly refer to myself as a poorly bred Irish Setter. Since incorporating mindfulness practices into my daily routine, I feel better able to manage my emotions, especially the difficult ones, rather than be managed by them. I have learned to sit and observe my feelings in order to figure out what information is contained in them. I attended a training last fall where they shared an article by Stephanie Noble Emotions as Honored Guests, which helped me think differently about how to think and treat my emotions. In the spirit of complete honesty though, it is a work in progress, and as my friend reminds me, that is why they are called practices.