The Mindfulness Definition: What Is Mindfulness?

By Sarah Fader |Updated August 19, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Robin Brock , LISW

Having Trouble Understanding Your Emotions And Behaviors?

Over the last year, the popularity of the self-care movement has exploded. Along with healthy eating, "me" time, exercise, and massages, mindfulness practice is often discussed as a way to practice self-care and improve your overall well-being. While other self-care activities are pretty self-explanatory, many people do not fully understand the definition of mindfulness.

What Is Mindfulness?

The mindfulness definition is fairly simple: it is a state of being completely focused on the present moment, without dwelling on or reacting to your thoughts. In other words, simply being present in everything that you do, rather than letting your mind wander or getting lost in your thoughts about the past or future. There is also a component of being non-reactive.

Rather than immediately react in a challenging or stressful situation, let your negative thoughts about the situation go and then come back to the present. It is okay to have reactions to negative situations, but mindfulness encourages you to take things slow and not respond to these situations so immediately. When you give yourself some time to let your thoughts pass, you often find that you can respond in a more calm, reasonable manner.

When you are living mindfully, you are living in the present. Many people feel that this helps them enjoy life more because they truly experience every moment, rather than getting distracted and missing what is in front of them.

How Does Mindfulness Work?

When practicing mindfulness, there are distinct shifts that take place in our bodies and mind. Many people experience positive health benefits due to their mindfulness practice. While the mechanisms behind why mindfulness can improve health are not fully understood, researchers have identified four factors of mindfulness that may contribute to the positive changes practitioners experience:

  • Attention Regulation: A major goal for living mindfully is to live in the present moment. When the mind does wander, mindfulness practitioners can quickly bring it back to the object of attention. Researchers believe that this sustained attention on an object of focus can positively impact emotions.
  • Body Awareness: Another mindfulness technique is the "body scan,"- slowly mentally checking in with every part of your body, from your head to your toes, and taking note of where you feel good and where may feel a bit "off." Improving your body awareness can, in turn, improve your emotional awareness and regulation.
  • Altered Perception Of Self: The ability to alter one's self-perception is associated with happiness. Experts believe mindfulness can help practitioners see the self as fluid and changing, which in turn leads to greater happiness.
  • Emotional Regulation: Mindfulness teaches not to react to your emotions. This does not mean you do not feel emotion, but rather that you accept what you are feeling, both positive and negative. This perspective can help promote overall well-being due to the acceptance that emotions will always pass and accept them how they are.

Alternative Definitions Of Mindfulness

Along with the more common mindfulness definition, there are some alternative ways you can define mindfulness to help grasp how the practice can make you feel and influence your life. A few of the alternative mindfulness definitions include:

"Mindfulness is letting go of taking things for granted."

Mindfulness challenges practitioners to break free of their thought patterns and start living in the present moment. When you do this, you are likely to appreciate the little things much more than you usually do. When you get out of your thoughts and pay attention to what is in front of you, it may remind you how great the things you have in your life are.

"Mindfulness means a return to the present moment."

One of the most important aspects of mindfulness is to live in the present moment. This does not mean that one has to stay in the present moment to live mindfully. Even those who have been living mindfully for years still cannot prevent their mind from wandering- all humans have thoughts that can distract them, even those who are very mindful. Rather, mindfulness should be thought of as a practice in returning to the present moment when our mind does start to wander.

Thinking about mindfulness from this perspective can be very comforting for beginners who feel that they are "bad" at being mindful because they cannot fully stay in the present moment. Remember that it is okay if the mind wanders. The important thing is that you always bring it back to the present. This is also a useful ideology for those just beginning a meditation practice.

Having Trouble Understanding Your Emotions And Behaviors?

"Mindfulness is the self-regulation of attention with an attitude of curiosity, openness, and acceptance."

This mindfulness definition is an older, scientific definition that was popular among experts over a decade ago. Today, most people, even those who practice mindfulness regularly, have never heard this definition. But, it may be the clearest definition of mindfulness you can find. This definition was developed by a group of top mindfulness researchers who wanted an accurate, simple way to describe mindfulness in both academia and to the public.

While it may not have had the staying power that researchers had hoped, this mindfulness definition does clearly explain the process of practicing mindfulness. "Self-regulation," refers to controlling one's attention to focus on the present moment. The second part of the definition means that mindfulness practitioners should be open to whatever it is they may end up facing in the present moment. Even if a situation is unpleasant, mindfulness teaches that we should calmly accept the situation rather than try to fight it.

A Brief History Of Mindfulness In the West

Mindfulness is believed to have originated from ancient religions and practices like Hinduism, Buddhism, and yoga. A major component of Buddhism is the eightfold path to enlightenment, and "sati" is considered to be the first step on that path. The Buddhist practice of Sati is explained as "an awareness" or being in one's "right mindfulness," and is very similar to the mindfulness many people in the West are implementing into their lives today.

Job Kabat-Zinn And MBSR

Jon Kabat-Zinn played a large role in bringing mindfulness to the United States and is considered to be both an expert and one of the biggest influences in the world of mindfulness. Kabat-Zinn founded the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and its corresponding Stress Reduction Clinic. In 1979, the first group of patients was exposed to his newly developed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, which Kabat-Zinn now teaches around the world. Before these developments, Kabat-Zinn studied under Buddhist teachers, where he was introduced to Eastern mindfulness techniques. He combined what he learned with Western science to develop MBSR and the popular style of mindfulness many people in the United States practice today.

Along with Kabat-Zinn, the founders of Insight Meditation Society, a meditation retreat, played a large role in popularizing mindfulness in the United States. The IMS and its founders helped introduce mindfulness meditation in the United States, which has now become very popular in the U.S. and other Western countries.

Yoga

The increasing popularity of yoga also helped spread the mindfulness message. While yoga is a very physical practice, it is meant to help practitioners connect with their mind. Many yoga instructors in the United States emphasize Eastern philosophy and being fully present while in a yoga class or on the yoga mat, and not getting caught up in one's thoughts. These guiding principles of a yoga class are mindfulness in action. Once yogis in the West made the connection that the great feeling they had after a yoga class could be attributed to mindfulness, many people wanted to start practicing mindfulness off the mat and in their daily lives.

Should You Practice Mindfulness?

There is no downside to trying to incorporate some mindfulness practices into your life. Anyone can benefit from being more present, letting go of troublesome thoughts, and becoming more aware of their surroundings.

Some mindfulness techniques, like deep breathing, are proven to reduce stress. In general, mindfulness requires that you only focus on one thing at a time, rather than trying to do multiple things at once, which can also help reduce stress.

Mindfulness And Mental Health

Conditions like anxiety and depression are on the rise, and many people are looking for natural ways to soothe their anxiety or provide relief from depressive episodes. Mindfulness can help those who suffer from these conditions immensely. Living mindfully means living in the present moment and not getting caught up in your thoughts. When you are truly living in the present, and not thinking about the past or the future, there is nothing to be anxious about. Of course, this is easier said than done, and even those who practice mindfulness regularly still experience anxiety, worry, or depressive thoughts sometimes.

But, using mindfulness techniques during episodes of acute anxiety can greatly reduce the severity of the anxiety attack, and learning the techniques can help prevent anxiety attacks in the future. While many people who struggle with anxiety and depression find that mindfulness techniques can help them find some relief, for most mindfulness on its own is not enough. It is always a good idea to work with a therapist or counselor in addition to mindfulness practices or other means of anxiety and depression management you incorporate in your life.

Mindfulness may seem to have risen in popularity quickly, but it has been present, even in the United States, for decades. And, the positive impact it has on the lives of many people indicates that mindfulness practices are going to continue to become more common. If you have yet to explore mindfulness, give a few basic practices a try and see how mindfulness impacts your life.

Helpful mental health resources delivered to your inbox
For Additional Help & Support With Your Concerns
Speak with a Licensed Therapist
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.