Stacked rocks: the art and science of mindfulness

The Art and Science of Mindfulness: an Essential Ingredient in Habit Change


It seems everywhere you look, the word “mindfulness” appears.  It’s a hot topic, now-a-days, although far from a new concept as it dates back thousands of years in Buddhist practice.  We owe the art of mindfulness to the Vietnamese born Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, often called “the father of mindfulness” who brought mindfulness practice into his teachings to the US.  He defined mindfulness as “the practice of being fully present and alive, body and mind united”  adding it is the “source of real happiness and good health.”  

Mindfulness became popular in the states in large part to Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction program which he instituted at UMASS medical center in 1979.   We need to credit the ancients of the east with the creation of mindfulness and meditation, but Jon Kabat-Zinn was the first to bring it into mainstream America and integrate it into medical treatment and kick-started over 40 years of scientific study.


He defines mindfulness as “The awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and without judgement” (Kabat-Zinn, in Purser, 2015).  When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we're sensing in the present moment with acceptance and compassion rather than rehashing the past (regrets) or imagining the future (worries). 

The words “mindfulness” and  “meditation” are often confused and used interchangeably.  Though they embody many similarities, they are not the same.  The practice of meditation uses a technique to improve focus and awareness, with the intention of enhancing calmness, concentration, and emotional wellbeing.  


Meditation can take many different forms, including:


  • Breath-awareness meditation
  • Loving-kindness meditation
  • Mantra-based meditation
  • Visualization meditation
  • Guided meditation
  • Body scan or progressive relaxation

Often the more formal meditation practice involves sitting in a comfortable position and bringing all your awareness to your breath.  From there, you may guide your focus to a mantra, a visualization, or a body scan - depending on what type of meditation you are doing.  


Now we shift to mindfulness. 


Mindfulness is about being aware and fully engaged in the present moment.  While practicing meditation, you are also being mindful.  But different from meditation, mindfulness can be practiced anywhere, anytime, and with anyone.  When you are being mindful, you are actively involved in the activity with all of your senses, instead of allowing your mind to wander.  

Practicing mindfulness involves fostering compassion and acceptance, and releasing judgement - something that requires consistent practice for most of us!

So what does Mindfulness have to do with cultivating wellbeing? 


The Science…


A recent study at Harvard University  reported that people are mindlessly involved in activity about 47% of the time and that this lack of awareness and intention leads to increased levels of unhappiness.  Why?  Because when our minds wander, we are often thinking about the past and things we can not change or ruminating on the future and what may or may not happen.  


Sound familiar?


The researchers found that “Mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness. In fact, how often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged.”


So in a nutshell, being mindful and fully present in the moment is a major predictor of your level of happiness.  


Need more convincing about the power of mindfulness?



Researchers have conducted thousands of studies that have spanned over four decades evaluating the impact of mindfulness.  The overwhelming data supports that it is indeed beneficial for just about every population you could think of including: 

  • parents from pregnancy to coping with adolescent children
  • seniors and their caregivers 
  • students of every age 
  • teachers 
  • veterans 
  • people in recovery
  • prison inmates 
  • corporate leaders 

And the list could go on!

The body of research is impressive, as are the benefits that they documented.  Practicing mindfulness even for just a few weeks has been shown to have variety of physical, psychological, and social benefits including:

  • improve our immune system’s ability to fight illness.
  • Improve functioning of the digestion system and reduces symptoms of related disorders such as IBS
  • Reduce the effects of stress 
  • Lessen anxiety symptoms
  • Improve restorative sleep
  • Improve mood (at least one study suggests it may be as good as antidepressants in fighting depression and preventing relapse!)
  • Studies in neuroplasticity have shown mindfulness actually Changes our brains in at least 8 areas, improving 
    • focus,
    • memory, 
    • attention and 
    • emotional regulation, 
    • empathy 
    • decision-making skills

Wow. So if you used to think that mindfulness was just a pop-culture fad, I hope I’ve given you reason to change your mind.

And speaking of changing your mind… lets talk for a minute about the role of mindfulness in changing those annoying habits that you can’t seem to shake…

An essential ingredient to Habit change: 

We’ve talked about Mindset as being the cornerstone of personal growth and wellbeing.  The most basic reasoning is that we need to believe that change is possible.  Having an optimistic, growth mindset is the first essential ingredient for habit change.  You need to BELIEVE.

The next essential ingredient is the ability to be fully tuned in to what we are feeling and thinking in the present moment.  You need to be AWARE.

Here’s why ~

Habits are automatic reactions (of thought, behavior, or emotion), ingrained in our subconscious, that occur when we are triggered by a particular stimulus. 

Enhancing our ability to remain consciously aware of our thoughts, our feelings, our physical sensations, and our surroundings allows us to identify our habit triggers - or cues  - and to make a conscious choice as to how we want to react.  If we continue to allow our mind to aimlessly wander half the time, changing unhealthy or unwanted habit behavior is unlikely.

Going back to the Flourish Framework - beginning a mindfulness practice is essential in getting us out of the Stuck Zone. Tuning in to our thoughts and feelings, without judgement.  Raising our self-awareness.  Beginning to acknowledge painful emotions, fears, needs and desires that we have buried or ignored - and often have developed unhealthy habits as a way to cope. 

So how do we start to chip away at unhealthy or undesirable habits? Developing an intention as a daily practice to be more mindful, creating a simple routine to check in with yourself throughout your day.  This can take just a moment or two.  Do it in the shower, brushing your teeth, washing dishes, walking the dog, getting the mail...anywhere, anytime.  

It may be helpful to identify one thing related to each of your senses to help your wandering mind come back to focus.  What do you feel, hear, smell, see, taste?  Take a moment to breathe.  And then just notice.  Everything.  With curiosity, compassion, and acceptance.

When you begin to develop the habit of Mindfulness, it opens the path to improving your life in so many ways.

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