What Is Mindfulness Meditation?
By: Julia Thomas
Updated January 02, 2019
Medically Reviewed By: Deborah Horton
An increasing number of people in the United States are exploring natural and alternative health methods. Anxiety and depression are on the rise, and people are searching for complementary therapies to help them manage their condition along with traditional therapy and medication. One form of anxiety reduction that has become increasingly popular in the United States and other Western countries is meditation. According to the National Institutes of Health, over 18 million U.S. adults practice meditation as part of their healthy mind and body routine. One of the forms of meditation that has become very popular is mindfulness meditation.
What is Mindfulness?
To understand mindfulness meditation, one must first understand mindfulness. Mindfulness is a state of being fully present in the moment and aware of what we are doing and where we are, and not being overly reactive to what is happening around us.
The first part of the mindfulness definition, at least, may seem relatively simple. But, think about all of the distractions you face every day. Between getting lost in your thoughts or compulsively pulling out your phone and scrolling through pictures, most people are rarely fully present. Mindfulness teaches people how to get out of their heads and ignore outside distractions so they can fully take in what is happening in front of them. This state of awareness helps people appreciate things more and helps bring additional joy to the lives of many mindfulness practitioners. Being fully present can also help manage anxiety and excessive stress. When you are truly in the present, you are not worrying about the past or future.
The second aspect of mindfulness, not being overly reactive in situations or to what is happening around us, can be even more challenging. It is human nature to respond immediately in situations and to let our thoughts guide our emotions and behavior. But, often this can lead us to overreact, or realize in hindsight that our response to a situation was not appropriate. It can also cause extra negativity or distress in our lives when we allow ourselves to dwell on something bad that happened.
Mindfulness teaches practitioners to be open to all situations, and stay calm rather than react negatively when something does not go as planned. This is because, according to mindfulness principles, all thoughts are fleeting, and we are separate from our thoughts. When you believe that your thoughts do not have to guide your emotions or behavior, it is easier to let them pass without having an emotional or behavioral response.
Mindfulness, Depression, and Anxiety
Realizing that thoughts are fleeting can also be a useful mindset for those who struggle with depression or anxiety. Sometimes, a triggering depressive thought or worry can develop into a major depressive or panic episode. By realizing that all thoughts are temporary and will pass, one can prevent their thoughts from triggering a deeper problem. Still, mindfulness on its own is typically not an effective treatment for conditions like anxiety or depression. One should still work with a therapist or counselor, who may incorporate mindfulness into their treatment with therapies like Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy.
While all of these things may seem overwhelming, it is important to remember that all people already possess the innate ability to live mindfully. One can tap into their ability to live mindfully by making minor lifestyle modifications and incorporating practices, like meditation, which cultivates mindfulness in their everyday life.
What Is Mindfulness Meditation?
Mindfulness meditation is a form of meditation that encourages practitioners to be more mindful, even when they are not meditating. It is the form of meditation that is most widely practiced, and probably what most people think of when they hear the term meditation. Other forms of meditation include guided visualization, heart rhythm meditation, and kundalini.
Mindfulness meditation helps practitioners feel more present in their bodies and the world around them. While meditating, practitioners are encouraged to clear their heads and "just be" in the present moment. While this is different than being mindful in everyday life, it is a helpful exercise in not letting yourself get too caught up in your thoughts. When thoughts do arise during meditation, practitioners are instructed just to let them go, which can emphasize the mindfulness concept that thoughts are fleeting and one should not allow thoughts to influence their emotions and behavior. Like mindfulness in general, mindfulness meditation is a way to help people manage stress and anxiety.
A Brief History of Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness meditation is thought to have originated from the Buddhist religion, although it is also mentioned in ancient texts from other major religions such as Hinduism, Christianity, and Judaism. In many religions, mindfulness meditation has used a way for practitioners to detach from one's thoughts and connect with their spirituality. Buddhism, however, helped pave the way for the popularity of mindfulness meditation due to the practice's integral role in the Buddhist path to enlightenment. One of the key teachings of Buddhism is that one should not be judgmental of themselves, their thoughts and feelings, or their environment. Mindfulness meditations are a tool used to help cultivate this non-judgmental awareness.
The Main Components of Mindfulness Meditation
There is no single way to practice mindfulness meditation. Different guides or practitioners may take different approaches to achieve the goal of being more present and living more mindfully in everyday life. Still, there are three main components of mindfulness meditation that hold true regardless of the specific teacher or methods they use in their practice.
- Developing Awareness: This is the biggest focus of mindfulness meditations. The goal is for practitioners to develop a greater awareness of the world around them and the present moment in their everyday lives. One may practice this during meditation by focusing on their breath or body.
- Non-judgment: Mindfulness meditation emphasizes a state of non-judgmental awareness, both during meditation and in life in general. In everyday life, this translates to the mindfulness principle of not being reactive in situations or having a negative emotional response to one's thoughts. During meditation, this means letting any thoughts that arise come and go naturally, and not judging oneself for experiencing those thoughts or being "bad" at meditation.
- Cultivate Peace: Non-judgment towards situations, thoughts, and emotions leads to an overall greater feeling of relaxation and peace. Mindfulness meditation and other mindfulness practices teach one how to live peacefully despite any negative thoughts or situations that may come their way. Meditation itself tends to be a very relaxing experience, and many practitioners emerge from a meditation feeling serene and with greater peace of mind.
Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness, in general, has been proven to help people manage depression, anxiety, and excessive stress. Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the greatest influencers in bringing mindfulness to the United States, developed the popular Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, which has been proven to help people effectively manage stress, chronic pain, anxiety, and other problems. MBSR served as inspiration for the development of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), which can effectively treat major depression. Mindfulness meditation plays a large role in MBCT.
While mindfulness meditation on its own is not a treatment for these conditions, it can help people manage the stress, worry, fear, and sadness that everyone occasionally experiences in their lives. Even those who do not struggle with a mental health condition experience these emotions sometimes and mindfulness meditation can be a great tool to incorporate into one's life to help cope when one does face a tough situation or is going through a hard time.
Being more present can also help people appreciate the little things in life more, which has been shown to improve mood. All people can benefit from a little more happiness.
How To Practice Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness meditation is a great tool to start living more mindfully and incorporating mindfulness practices into your life. If you are new to meditation, a good way to get started is with guided mindfulness meditation. There are numerous free resources online as well as smartphone apps that can help you get comfortable with mindfulness meditation. Keep trying different services until you find one that resonates with you.
Some other tips for getting started with mindfulness meditation include:
Find A Quiet Space
Focusing on your breath and not getting lost in your thoughts can be very challenging at first. It gets even more challenging when there are a lot of external distractions. To make meditation as easy as possible, find a quiet space where you are less likely to be pulled out of your meditative state by distractions like noises or smells.
Set A Timer
One of the easiest ways to get distracted during meditation is wondering what time it is or how long you have been meditating. Setting a timer allows you to fully immerse yourself in your meditation without worrying about the time because you know that the alarm will go off after a predetermined amount of time. To start, just set a timer for a quick meditation of 4 or 5 minutes. Once you get more comfortable with mindfulness meditation, start increasing the time until you reach about 30 minutes. This can take quite a while, so do not get discouraged if it takes you a long time to get comfortable with meditating for longer than five minutes.
Find Your Comfortable Position
Some forms of meditation require practitioners to feel a bit uncomfortable at first due to their rigid guidelines on how one must sit during the meditation. For mindfulness meditation, you should feel as comfortable as possible. If the traditional cross-legged, straight back pose does not feel comfortable to you, feel free to make adjustments. You may want to lead your back against a pillow or lay on your back. Keep trying different positions until you find one where you can settle in and not have to worry about your body. You should feel comfortable enough that you can forget about your position and not get distracted by any aches or pains.
Use Your Breath
Clearing your mind and letting your thoughts go is not easy. A good tool for mindfulness meditation beginners if to focus on your breath to stay present at the moment and not get distracted by your thoughts. Focus on each inhalation and exhalation, perhaps even saying in your mind "inhale, exhale" in tune with your breath. This strategy forces you to truly be present in the moment rather than letting your mind wander. If your mind does begin to wander, simply bring your attention back to the rhythm of your breathing.
You have nothing to lose by trying mindfulness meditation. Set aside five minutes today, get comfortable, and start the process of incorporating more mindfulness into your life.
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